I’m taking a bit of a liberty claiming to have adapted this activity, as I had the advantage of very high level students to road test it with. This term I found myself in the odd situation of teaching an elective course to a class including one native speaker (Colorado, born and raised) and several other bilingual students alongside some strong pre-advanced/advanced. The course was entitled Language and Communication Strategies so I took my cue to trial some extended discussion activities alongside focusing on written register. The Socratic Seminar was actually suggested by Colorado and I will freely admit, these guys being 10 times smarter than me, I had no idea what one was. In case you don’t either, here’s a brief outline…
As the name suggests, socratic seminars are derived from the teachings of Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher who encouraged his pupils to explore their ideas/beliefs/assumptions through rigorous and extensive questioning (Socratic Questioning/Dialetic Approach). From this questioning evolved a seminar style used on literature classes and in University tutorials. It encourages students to pick apart an interesting text (fiction, non-fiction, poem, historical artefact, film, whatever) and the strands of meaning threaded through it, in a cooperative, formalised discussion. I did a fair bit of a reading up on it and found this document, this resource and the readwritethink website particularly helpful.
What you need:
- A shortish text appropriate to student level, preferably something that deals with complex, challenging themes. I selected the short story Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut suggested on this list of socratic texts. Partly because we’d been chatting a lot about North Korea in class, the story presents a dystopian future and deals with the concept of equality, plus Vonnegut is one of my favourite authors and I knew my class would dig it.
- A few prepared questions relating to the text to get the discussion going. Two types of questions are needed, interpretive (referring to and analysing the text) and evaluative (dealing with it’s thematic concepts in relation to your own values, beliefs ideas). See procedure for my examples. If literary critique is not your strong suit the online study guide sparknotes helps with themes. Even though I studied English Lit I’m a bit rusty so I took a peek there.
- Prepared roles for the inner and outer circle – I invented mine a bit on the spot but there are some good suggestions for the inner circle at the end of this and outer circle here. There are standard/classic roles but given we’re adapting it for second language learners I don’t reckon Socrates would mind if we were to create our own interpretations to better facilitate discussion.
- A simple powerpoint with the basic background info is helpful, here’s my slightly rushed one. Please ignore any punctuation errors.
Procedure (What I did)
NB: If you have trouble visualising the procedure, this video demo is a very clear version
Before the Class: Ideally you need at least 8 students so know in advance roughly how many will be turning up on the day (you can take part if necessary). It’s essential to set the reading text in class or for homework at least a couple of weeks in advance. Give them a task to focus their reading, and make sure they realise they won’t be able to participate otherwise. I asked my students to consider how the text defines ‘equality’ but a comprehension task would also work.
Day of Seminar:
- To check students had read and understood the text and troubleshoot any issues with vocab or narrative we started with a word-cloud of the whole text. Students first checked they understood the vocab, and it’s significance in context, then jointly reconstructed the story orally using vocab from the cloud (powerpoint slide 2).
- I elicited what students already knew about socrates (surprisingly little!) then gave them a bit of background with a short text as I knew they’d be interested, explaining the basic premise of a socratic seminar with a diagram and by looking at examples of socratic questioning (slides 3-5).
- To scaffold and support weaker students, prime the class and relate the concept to the language needed, they then completed a short categorising task, identifying useful language according to it’s function (slide 6 + handout).
- Students then spent a few minutes creating a list of rules for the seminar with it’s core values in mind, to which I added a couple. It was interesting to contrast this style with debates (we’d done a formal one in a previous class) as the aim of the seminar is not to disagree or ‘win’ but jointly explore. Think collaborative not oppositional.
- Set up the seating and assign half the students to the inner (discussion) and half to the outer (silent) circle. In a large class you could run 2 at the same time. I decided to put stronger students/those most familiar with the text in the inner circle. (Students who hadn’t read the text get relegated permanently to the outer circle, a good incentive to read next time!) We had an inner circle of 4 students around a central table with a concentric outer circle of 4 each sat behind a desk like so:
- I assigned roles to students in the outer circle taken from the first 4 in this resource as below.
- We started the seminar off with an interpretive question gleaned from the text:
What does George mean by “going back to the dark ages”?
I just kind of flung it in there then sat down, but the students caught and ran with it quite easily as they were already really into the story and raring to go. During the discussion I took notes on language, and when the discussion began to stray/run its course I guided them with a further question from my list, evaluative this time.
Does Vonnegut believe equality is something worth striving for? Do you think it is?
While observing I started to notice certain student behaviour, e.g. one straying into general opining without explicit reference to the text, another student making minimal contributions, a third dominating/interrupting. Although I hadn’t planned to assign roles to the inner circle I felt it would help, so quickly scribbled out these with examples of language, pausing the conversation to distribute them depending on their behaviour.
The friend – Be supportive of your group e.g. “What do you think about…?” ” I think what X said is interesting because…”
The devil’s advocate – Try to consider the other side, even if it’s not what you believe. “On the other hand…”, “Another way to look at it could be…”
The librarian – Find examples in the text to support your arguments “It says here…” “According to the text…”
The explorer – Try to take ideas further and explore new possibilities “What other possibilities are there?” “Let’s think more about…” Why don’t we go back to….”
We continued like this, until about 10-12 minutes of discussion were completed, when we took a break. The outer circle joined the inner circle at the central table, and began with the ‘reporter’ summarising what they’d discussed. The ‘talliers’ then shared their findings and the silent contributor added their contribution. They then paired up for a quick ‘coaching session’ while I boarded good examples of language and correction/language focus. After a quick run through of this we returned to the discussion with a further prompt question for 5 minutes.
8. Regrouping, I felt confident now that students could create their own questions, so they spent a few minutes brainstorming those to consider in the next round.
9. Roles reversed, the inner circle became the outer circle and visa versa. The whole procedure was repeated using the brainstormed questions, minus the roles for the inner circle as by now students had cottoned on to what was expected to them and were more considered in how they contributed to the discussion.
10. To round things off we regrouped and completed a self-evaluation and reflection questionnaire, then fed back about the activity itself. I was really pleased by students’ positive responses as I really wasn’t sure how well it would go down! I would 100% try this again and even make it a regular part of a more extensive course.
The seminar was definitely a success although I appreciate I was helped a lot by the high level of the students. Still, it really lends itself to EFL classroom…
- It’s extremely learner-centred – The teacher’s role is facilitator, setting up the discussion then taking a backseat (even if there’s a bit of painful silence involved), intervening only to guide the conversation occasionally with pertinent questions. This role can also eventually be adopted by the students themselves. Very empowering.
- Both process and product orientated – Students must gain a developed understanding of the text they will discuss, self-monitoring understanding of vocab and any potential ambiguities the text presents, in order to take part in a successful discussion. They must also be aware of their own and each other’s participation when speaking, which can be augmented through roles assigned by the teacher, to compensate for more/less dominant contributors, for example.
- It goes well beyond the usual “discussion language” seen in textbooks, ample opportunity to focus on emergent language, particular lexical sets, feed in whats missing etc. Lots of nice incidental language came up and there’s ample opportunity to build in stages focusing on this and correction between discussion rounds.
- It encourages critical thinking, is cognitively challenging, clearly contextualises language, both within the text and to discuss the text.
- Personalised – Students need to relate the text to their own beliefs and values.
- Great learner training, an EAP study skills winner. It’s likely students will be doing this, or some version of this, on their Uni courses for reals.
- A would also be a great activity for reading groups and higher level YLs using readers like they did at BC Colombia. We didn’t have time to use the text apart from in the seminar but you could get a lot of mileage out of it!
What would I do differently next time?
- A nice alternative would have been to get each outer circle member to monitor an individual in the inner circle, even using a rubric something like this. Particular language or speaking strategies could also be tallied to make the language element tighter.
- Language focus was fairly flexible (flimsy?) but at this level it could afford to be, it’s predominantly a speaking lesson anyway. With lower level groups, we’d definitely need to spend more time focusing on the text in advance. To bring it back to language though it might be nice to record good and corrected examples of functional language and ask students to categorise them again after the discussion, according to those we looked at at the beginning of the lesson.
- A model in the form of a video might be useful for lower level/less confident groups and there are lots online which would do the job, like the one mentioned before. Also, more scaffolding of language would be needed at lower levels.
- To make the seminar more dynamic, tapping out would also be fun to try to keep them on their toes. I did notice one student nodding off a bit but he wasn’t feeling great anyway
Anyone done this before or fancy giving it a crack? If you do, please let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear from you!!