Our English Department uses Socratic seminars as an assessment tool. Typically, these are used at the conclusion of a unit, though sometimes they are used to spark curiosity at the start of a novel. When the Socratic seminar is the culminating assessment, students are expected to prepare for the activity ahead of time as they would for a written test.
Before the assessment, the teacher provides a set of thematic questions students are responsible for addressing the day of the Socratic seminar. Students are expected to use those questions to prepare a set of quotes and relevant examples to express and defend their ideas. This format encourages students to build off their peer’s ideas and arguments, promoting an environment where they are speaking with one another instead of past each other. Students sit in two concentric circles during a Socratic seminar. The inner circle drives the conversation while the outer circle listens and takes notes; they share their ideas and questions only after the inner circle has wrapped up their conversation.
Integrating Technology to Bring Discussion to the Next Level:
In Ms. Allison Davison’s Honors English II class, we used TodaysMeet to increase active engagement and participation for all students during their discussion of Night, by Elie Wiesel. TodaysMeet, which was projected during the Socratic seminar, is a backchannel that allows for the outer circle to have a real-time voice in the discussion. The idea of a backchannel is to provide a digital, parallel discussion alongside the primary activity. In this case, the primary activity is the discussion within the inner circle. So while the inner circle was engaging in dialogue, the outer circle had the chance to express their “stream” of ideas and pose questions via TodaysMeet.
Students in the outer circle typed into TodaysMeet to share ideas, build on what was being said in the inner circle, and to pose questions. At times, the inner circle was so engaged in dialogue that they did not even look up at the TodaysMeet stream. But at other times, some students used the questions posted to prompt further discussion in the inner circle. The outer circle also had a similiar experience negotiating between the inner circle’s dialogue and their own separate and digital dialogue. TodaysMeet provided an opportunity for a dual conversation and continuous engagement from every single student in the classroom.
Snapshot of TodaysMeet conversation in Honors English II during Socratic Seminar for Night
After class, the backchannel transcript can be printed and distributed to students. This provides the perfect opportunity to review, assess, and continue the discussion. It also gives students the chance to metacognitively reflect on the experience after they’ve had time to process the entire discussion. The teacher might ask students to find main themes, topics, and subjects in the transcript. Teachers might also ask the class to analyze where people mainly agree, where opinions diverge, and possible explanations.
Socratic Seminar Pros:
Students really enjoy Socratic seminars. It’s an assessment that combines a verbal and written component, rather than an essay which is solely written. In this type of assessment, students have the opportunity to verbally express themselves without teacher intervention. Also, this task closely simulates a college seminar environment.
Traditional Socratic Seminar Cons:
While some students love this opportunity to engage in a passionate oral discussion with their classmates, some of the quieter, more introverted students feel intimidated by this format. Additionally, some students process information at a faster pace than others and the quick moving conversation leaves some students behind. Students who prefer to slowly analyze a topic often favor written opportunities.
Additionally, students with something to say can find being in the outer circle frustrating. They may have a thought or an idea they want to share, but being in the outer circle for this part of the discussion means that they have no way express these thoughts. As a teacher, it can similarly be difficult to keep students in the outer circle feeling as involved and engaged as those in the inner circle.
Most of these cons are addressed using TodaysMeet. Shy students might feel more comfortable typing their thoughts in the outer circle. Students who need time to process can benefit from seeing the typed stream of conversation in TodaysMeet. Additionally, all students have an active role when TodaysMeet is used.
How the Socratic Seminar Was Enhanced Using TodaysMeet:
Socratic seminars that use TodaysMeet cultivate a communicative classroom experience where students can simultaneously exchange ideas and deepen their understanding of the text. TodaysMeet promotes:
- Backchannel engagement.
- A multi-sensory approach to learning, where students can learn audibly and visually.
- An environment where participants can learn from each other and share their insights, improving participation and deepening the learning.
- A productive and freeing space for all students to express thoughts or ideas, whether they are introverted or extroverted by nature.
Originally posted on: Bullis Tech Blog