Saturday, 7 September 2013

Beginning Socratic Seminars

I've been meaning to try Socratic Seminars for over a year now, following endorsements from those in my PLN that lauded them as the single most transformative tool for learning available. I was initially daunted by the fact that there were no local examples for me to observe but after reading Socratic Circles (Copeland, M) and watching various Youtube examples including this one below, I decided to give it a go.

I chose the reading (around the topic of language & power that we are currently studying), posted it to our homework site (to allow them time to digest and think of good discussion questions) and rearranged the classroom to accommodate the session.

On the day, we were fortunate to have one learner among us who had experienced Socratic Seminars in her previous school, and she warned us that it would likely take a few sessions before the discussion really flowed easily. That was certainly a warning to be heeded. With only 10 learners, the circles were quite small but the discussion was kicked off as learners consulted their notes (some annotations were more evident on some texts than others) and began to build on each other's knowledge. This was a real positive as other teachers had indicated that often learners can see the seminars as a debate rather than an opportunity to co-construct meaning. 

However, despite this positive aspect there were some negatives to be reflected upon too. In the feedback session after the first 'round', learners revealed that they had not received the text to comment on until after 10pm the night before - some glitch with our homework-recording system - so most had hurriedly scribbled some notes earlier that day and therefore hadn't had the thinking time needed to produce rich discussion. Also, we had two learners who did not speak at all; one from his long-standing painful shyness, and the other because of his lack of confidence in English (this is an IBDP course in Language & Literature). To encourage the shy learner, I will try the 'wingman' strategy exemplified in the video above, although I'm not sure how that will work with our smaller numbers; to support the second-language user, I will provide prompts - these will be useful to all learners in developing their speaking and listening skills and really something I should have considered beforehand.

Participants have started posting their reflections of the experience and this is what some of them had to say:

"After watching the video, I am siding with the "wingman"  Socratic Seminar. The reason is that I am shy and get nervous when talking in public. With the "wingman" method, I could tell the representative what my ideas are and he/she will share it with others. This way, I could participate even though I am not talking, but I might have to be in the inner circle to talk and when that happens, I hope I will be ready to speak to others."

"In the class’ socratic seminar on Thursday I didn’t think I contributed enough to be discussion that was going on, I had ideas to share but I often hesitated before speaking out. But I did notice I contributed more to the second extract that was analyzed and hopefully there will be more progress in the discussions to come. Also, I’ve learnt that it’s better to ask questions about things rather than keeping quiet during the seminar."

"We also applied an extremely useful way to discuss, which is using a Socratic circle where half of the class listen and take notes while the other half discusses important points and changing places after a certain amount of time. This definitely gave people the chance to take a breather to absorb information and to be stimulated by the discussion to brainstorm ideas and also gave speakers a chance to speak comfortably within a smaller circle. This also gave us the opportunity to evaluate the quality of discussion as some speakers might be overbearing or some might simply avoid taking the initiative to be involved in active discussion."

"During the last English lesson, we tried out Socratic circles as a way of discussing our ideas & findings of pre-read extracts. Although this was my first time at it, I didn't find it a struggle, mostly because I'm confident in speaking. However, I didn't perform to my best during the discussions. This came down to a lack of preparation, although I had read beforehand, I failed to fully annotate the extracts. Something I will need to work on, is reading between the lines. I'll need to make sure I can fully comprehend writers' ideas & messages; if not, to ask more questions. I'm perfectly happy with the formation we tried in class but since we're still a new group, the 'wingman' formation may help settle us down and ensure we're all comfortable, confident and contributing to the discussions."

Targets for future sessions:
  • provide language scaffolding in the form of sentence starters;
  • try the 'wingman' formation;
  • ensure learners have access to the required text well in advance of the seminar.

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