Socratic Circles

Science Explored | Published  April 26, 2013

Maria Montessori once said, “never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”  At their core, Socratic circles are simple things, but their effects are complex.  Montessori’s message was simple:  if a child feels capable, the teacher (or parent, friend, colleague, etc.) need do nothing more.  Once that child feels unable to do something, then intervention is justified.  The secret of Socratic circles is in making children trust that they are able to do more than they previously thought possible.  Once mastered, Socratic circles allow students to grasp information more deeply through peer-to-peer learning while teaching a critical life skill that often goes unaddressed:  effective dialog.

It takes time and repeated effort to make Socratic circles functional in class.  When they do begin to work, a sense of equity and community arise, students take ownership of their learning, and teachers find great pleasure in shifting from classroom Authority to authoritative peer.  Effective use of wait time, both prepared and Bloom’s scaled questions, and refraining from commenting to let students do the talking are musts to make Socratic circles work like a well-oiled machine.   Too much structure and students will not be invested in bouncing thoughts around the circle.  Too little structure and the conversation will degrade into frivolity, defeating the learning goals of the circle.

The seed that makes a Socratic circle possible is a shared experience.  In the video above (Lara Arch at NSTA), the participants had all read an article prior to beginning their talk – this gave context to answering the question, “what is science?” allowing the group to hone their thoughts.  Similarly, students need to have read an essay, performed an investigation, watched a video, etc., prior to participating.  As more and more students add to the Socratic circle, it becomes increasingly likely that they will complete the pre-work so that they can be meaningful contributors.  At the end of most Socratic Circles, teachers should pause to have a “meta-discussion” about what rules, procedures, or standards should be implemented to make the next one better – these comments should be student driven and teacher moderated. 

We often hear of 21st-century skills as something radically different from “20th-century skills.”  Socratic circles hit the mark for both.  21st-century skills are, in effect, the same as 20th-century skills  - with new tools.  The skills are ultimately the same but the medium has changed.  We have swapped paper spreadsheets with MS Excel, pencils with keyboards, and math workbooks with apps, but, in the end, the same skills are being communicated.  Socratic circles are really a life skill – the ability to speak in a group, feed and comment on one another’s thoughts, and meaningfully contribute in order to have shared understanding are very old.  Participating in a Socratic circle isn’t a 20th-century or even 21st-century skill; it’s a life skill.  Ultimately, Socratic circles are a fantastic way to engage students in real discourse that will undoubtedly last into 22nd-century and beyond – we just need to set aside the time to teach students how to be part of them.


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