One of the biggest struggles I’ve had with Socratic seminars in the past and (it still comes up now and then) is getting them to respond authentically to each other. I know that when we first start teaching kids how to have a group conversation, we tell them that it’s important to always recognize the person who just spoke. I practice this all the time with my students, until they get it right. In the past, I have given them sentence starters such as, “I agree,” or “I disagree”, etc. but I noticed that yes, it does help to tell give them those, but then I would have kids saying things like, “I agree” and start talking about something completely different or even agreeing to an opinion that, after they start talking, I realize they didn’t actually agree at all! I remembering feeling like I failed in a way because the kids were just spitting out the responses I told them to say. They didn’t really know how to respond to each other authentically and the conversation wasn’t a conversation at all.
Over the years, I have tried different things to try and combat this robotic-type responses and the only thing that seems to work is teaching them explicitly in a way that stops the kids in their tracks and has them start over, really think about how they can respond and try again. This is not fun. This is not even slightly enjoyable for anyone involved. And when it’s happening, the conversations definitely aren’t authentic or real. But…. that is the exact reason you won’t have to be doing it for too long. Once kids start to get called out on their responses, get guidance as to how to improve and opportunities to try again right away, they end up having amazing conversations. Below is a transcribed discussion from my class when I was teaching them how to have their first Socratic seminar in 6th grade. The students were asked to reflect and discuss their experiences and learning in the previous school year.
Danny: “My favorite part of 5th grade was when we had our exhibition and we performed our play. It was my favorite part because I never did something like that before and it was scary. But I did it and I am proud of myself.”
Jenni: “I agree, Danny. My favorite part of 5th grade was being able to play dodgeball with the teachers at the end of the school year.”
Me: “Hold on, Jenni. That sounds like a really cool memory, except you just said you agreed with Danny, but went on to share about a different experience last year. So are you saying the play was your favorite, like Danny’s or something different?”
Jenni: “Something different.”
Me: “Okay, so you don’t really agree with Danny and you don’t have to! But think about this, what can you say back to Danny that shows him you were listening to what he was saying and would like to share your favorite memory?”
Jenni: “I could tell him that I liked doing the play as well and then talk about my thing.”
Me: “Exactly! Let’s try that again. Danny what was your favorite part of 5th grade?”
Danny: “I really liked when we did the play. I was proud of myself because I was super scared to do it, but did it.”
Jenni: “I liked doing the play as well, but my favorite part of 5th grade was when we played dodgeball with the teachers because Mr. Smith was so funny every time we threw the ball he yelled and tried to hit the kids!”
Obviously, there is a lot about that conversation that is definitely not authentic. However, this type of teaching and practice is so very important. If we just expect kids to say something, anything to a student who spoke before them then they won’t rise to the expectations of an authentic conversation with each other. For this method to be effective, you will need to be very aware of what the kids are saying and stop them every time someone either doesn’t acknowledge the person before them or uses a response that is not meaningful.
If you are trying this for the first time, I would suggest using a smaller circle and ask the students who are not discussing to observe and give feedback. And try to make it kind of fun. There’s always so many laughs when I stop the kids and don’t even have to say anything because they realize what just happened. They ignored the person who spoke before them or they didn't answer the person who asked them a question. There can be so many different things that happen, but we all know that practice makes perfect!
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Daughter of the King, wife and mother, former upper elementary teacher, curriculum and course developer