A Socratic Circle (also known as a Socratic Seminar) is an approach to understand and examine a text through questions and answers founded on the belief that all thinking comes from asking questions, and that asking one question should lead to asking further questions. The Socratic method of teaching is based on Socrates’ theory that it is more important to enable students to think for themselves than to merely fill their heads with “right” answers.
A Socratic Circle is not a debate. The goal is to have participants work together to construct meaning and arrive at an answer, not for one student or one group to “win the argument”.
This approach is based on the belief that students gain a deeper understanding of concepts through thoughtful dialogue rather than memorizing information.
Socratic Circles involve the following process:
- A passage of text that students must read beforehand and two concentric circles of students: an outer circle and an inner circle.
- The inner circle focuses on exploring and analysing the text through the act of questioning and answering.
- During this phase, the outer circle remains silent. Students in the outer circle are much like scientific observers watching and listening to the conversation of the inner circle.
- When the text has been fully discussed and the inner circle is finished talking, the outer circle provides feedback on the dialogue that took place.
- This process alternates with the inner circle students going to the outer circle for the next meeting and vice versa. The length of this process varies depending on the text used for the discussion.
The most significant difference between this activity and most typical classroom activities involves the role of the teacher. In Socratic Circles the students lead the discussion and questioning. The teacher’s role is to ensure the discussion advances regardless of the particular direction the discussion takes.
Various approaches to Socratic Circles
Teachers use Socratic Circles in different ways. The structure it takes may look different in each classroom. While this is not an exhaustive list, teachers may use one of the following structures to administer Socratic Seminar:
- 1. Inner/outer circle or fishbowl: Students need to be arranged in inner and outer circles. The inner circle engages in discussion about the text. The outer circle observes the inner circle, while taking notes. The outer circle shares their observations and questions the inner circle with guidance from the teacher/facilitator. Students use constructive criticism as opposed to making judgements. The students on the outside keep track of topics they would like to discuss as part of the debrief. Participants of the outer circle can use an observation checklist or notes form to monitor the participants in the inner circle. These tools will provide structure for listening and give the outside members specific details to discuss later in the seminar. The teacher may also sit in the circle but at the same height as the students.
- 2. Triad: Students are arranged so that each participant (called a “pilot”) in the inner circle has two “co-pilots” sitting behind them on either side. Pilots are the speakers because they are in the inner circle; co-pilots are in the outer circle and only speak during consultation. The seminar proceeds as any other seminar. At a point in the seminar, the facilitator pauses the discussion and instructs the triad to talk to each other. Conversation will be about topics that need more in-depth discussion or a question posed by the leader. Sometimes triads will be asked by the facilitator to come up with a new question. Any time during a triad conversation, group members can switch seats and one of the co-pilots can sit in the pilot’s seat. Only during that time is the switching of seats allowed. This structure allows for students to speak, who may not yet have the confidence to speak in the large group. This type of seminar involves all students instead of just the students in the inner and outer circles.
- 3. Simultaneous seminars: Students are arranged in multiple small groups and placed as far as possible from each other. Following the guidelines of the Socratic Seminar, students engage in small group discussions. Simultaneous seminars are typically done with experienced students who need little guidance and can engage in a discussion without assistance from a teacher/facilitator. According to the literature, this type of seminar is beneficial for teachers who want students to explore a variety of texts around a main issue or topic. Each small group may have a different text to read/view and discuss. A larger Socratic Seminar can then occur as a discussion about how each text corresponds with one another. Simultaneous Seminars can also be used for a particularly difficult text. Students can work through different issues and key passages from the text.
No matter what structure the teacher employs, the basic premise of the seminar/circles is to turn partial control and direction of the classroom over to the students. The seminars encourage students to work together, creating meaning from the text and to stay away from trying to find a correct interpretation. The emphasis is on critical and creative thinking.