Socratic Circles in the EFL Classroom
The face of the EFL classroom is changing. Deep transformations are being introduced and tested practically on a daily basis. And with the spur of the new technologies, a plethora of methods and strategies are being experimented with students who, on the one hand, are technology savvy, and on the other hand, getting gradually further and further from one another, from togetherness and from relishing the pleasure of exchange. The classroom is no longer appealing to them. Their needs and dreams are changing while the classroom is static. In John Taylor’s own words (2016), « The world over, the joy of learning is being sucked out and education reduced to dry, soulless process of ‘delivery’ ».
A new method that acknowlegdes the interactive and social nature of the learner and learning is in use nowadays in the EFL classrooms. It has proven to be efficient in breaking the routine and in building new relationships among students : the Socratic Circles (S.C), also known as Socratic Conferences, Socratic Seminars and Maieutic Method.
What are Socratic Circles (S.C) ?
More than two thousand years ago, Socrates (469 – 395 B.C) initiated the S.C, based on his own beliefs that « the unexamined life is not worth living », that he himself cannot teach anybody anything, that he « can only teach them to think » and that « the true wisdom is to know that you know nothing » (retrieved from the internet, January 19, 2017).
Lesley Lambright (1995, p.30) defines the S.C as an « exploratory intellectual conversation centered on a text. » (cited in M. Copeland 2005). As for Adler (1984, 17 – 18), the S.C consist in « questioning students about something they have read so as to help them improve their understanding of basic ideas and values. »
For Elfie Israel (2002, 89),
«The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. »
Right from the start, the S.C proved to be a successful strategy for holding fruitful, well-targeted discussions and for drawing on the untapped reservoirs of knowledge that people decidedly hold inside. Gradually, the S.C has gained recognition from researchers and theorists, has permeated, the world over and has entered the EFL classroom as one of the most efficient methods we can rely on to promote learners’ inter and intrapersonal skills.
What do S.C add to the EFL classroom ?
« Just so you know, I hate English and there is absolutely nothing you can do to change that. » That was the first comment that James, Matt Copeland’s student, made about his own performance before he became acquainted with the S.C (M. Copeland 2005, introduction). Later, James changed his mind when, thanks to S.C, he could taste the pleasure of being in an English class, endeavouring with English, taking part in discussions with classmates about heated issues of all kinds. In Copeland again, Miranda stipulates, « through our Socratic Circles and the opportunity to express my views, I have gained more self-confidence and realized that not everyone thinks they are better than me. » (M. Copeland 2005 , 23).
I have to admit that it is really hard to shortlist the many ways in which S.C can embellish the EFL classroom. Some are social and societal, others are emotional and others are cognitive. S.D. Brookfield and S. Preskill (1999, 29) aknowledge, « Democracy and discussion are inseparable because both have the same root purpose- to nurture and promote human growth. » They also list around 15 ways S.C can benfit students when conducted in the classroom. S.C can help students explore a diversity of perspectives, increase their intellectual agility, enhance habits of collaborative learning among them, promote the four skills, namely reading, writing, speaking and listening and make them more empathetic and tolerant with differences… . S.C also help build a feeling of belonging to a community within the classroom, equip students with peaceful manners for conflict resolution, boost students’ self- confidence and improve their High Order Thinking Skills (HOTS). For John Taylor, « Socratic dialogue improves student confidence and articulacy. » (October 6, 2016). Relying on the strategy of questions and answers, students draw on their prior knowledge about the topic and the world, exchange ideas and revisit their presumptions. W.K.C. Guthrie (1968, 74) notices that Socrates himelf insists that
« he did not himself know anything, and that the only way in which he was wiser than other men was that he was conscious of his ignorance while they were not. The essence of the Socratic method is to convince the interlocutor that whereas he thought he knew something, in fact the does not. »
Main characteristics of S.C
The nature of S.C is interaction, as it is based on the technique of questions and answers. The purpose is to lead students to gain deeper understanding and better knowledge of the text. S.C allow a shift from the surface exploitaion of ideas inherent to the reading passage to a deeper analysis of its semantic content. They purport the stimulation of critical thinking through the asking and answering of questions in a cooperative and an argumentative atmosphere. « In a S.C, participants seek deeper understanding of complex ideas in the text through thoughtful dialogue, rather than by memorizing bits of information. » (retrieved January 19, 2017 from www.corndancer.com/tunes/tunes_print/soccirc.pdf,).
The S.C are based on the conviction that people gain understanding and broaden the sphere of knowledge through asking questions. Each question should lead to another series of questions and prior knowledge would pave the way to new knowledge. S.C are two : the inner circle and the outer one. The two circles are divided at random and exchange roles (as it will be described later in the article.).
The role of the teacher in a S.C
In a S.C, the role alloted to the teacher is crucial. S/He acts as a catalyst who keeps oscillating between two paradigms : that of teaching and that of learning. S/He sets the questions but should not provide answers, directs discussions but does not dictate positions, facilitates communication but does not dominate turn-taking, solicits participation but does not frustrate speakers. In fact, M.Copeland (2005, 58) explains, « The teacher’s job at the beginning of the S.C is to randomly divide the class into two groups and offer an initiating question to focus the inner circle’s approach to analysing the text and starting their dialogue. » His/Her role is not to lead the discussion but to set the question that helps students engage in the discussion. John Taylor precises that « the teacher offers no answers but instead, records comments on a flip – chart as the class discusses. Nor does the lesson end with an answer. » (aeon magazine : October 6, 2016, retrieved January 15, 2017). J. Taylor believes that learning is supervised trying. That’s why, the teacher supervises the procedure, directs action, facilitates discussion, evaluates learner performance, records answers, provides feedback, prevents digression, displays understanding and acumen…. In brief, the teacher is the one who leads the S.C from the first question to the last stage, with no intention to dominate the student circles. S/He is a facilitator, a mentor, a monitor, someone who is able to turn ordinary classroom situations into opportunities to support students’ learning and who displays « skills as well as recognition of one’s own position and motivations. » (E. Dickens December 9, 2016).
The importance of questions in a S.C
The questions are the sinew of the S.C. Thanks to questions, students develop from passive absorbers of knowledge to deep thinkers and active users of the language. « Wonder is the beginning of wisdom, » says Socrates. The more questions students ask about content material, the better understanding they acquire. Elder and Paul (1998, 297) stipulate, « Questions define tasks, express problems and delineate issues. Answers on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought. Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life as such. » Lesley Lambright (1995, 30) even defines S.C as an « exploratory intellectual conversation, » Hence, insisting on the importance of questions.
In order for questions to reach the targeted objectives, they must be well-sequenced. The best order to follow is to start with easy ones and gradually push students to the proximal zone of development. A starting question may trigger names of characters, places or events, main idea or fact… More demanding questions may trigger attitudes, view points, interpretations, expressions of opinion,…
How to conduct S.C in the classroom : a classroom model
Pre –S.C phase :
– the teacher selects the text (a text may be a poem, a leaflet, a chapter of a book, …).
– the text must be selected with regard to students’ level of acquisition.
– the teacher hands copies of the text to individual students
– if possible the teacher assigns a focus question to guide the student’s reading
– students work on the texts, reading it (at least twice), analysing ideas and taking notes and exploring new lexis themselves.
Text : a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge : A child’s evening prayer, retrieved from : www.storyit.com/Classics/JustPoems/classicpoems.htm
A Child’s Evening Prayer Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
God grant me grace my prayers to say:
O God! preserve my mother dear In strength and health for many a year;
And, O! preserve my father too, And may I pay him reverence due;
And may I my best thoughts employ
To be my parents’ hope and joy;
And O! preserve my brothers both
From evil doings and from sloth,
And may we always love each other
Our friends, our father, and our mother:
And still, O Lord, to me impart
An innocent and grateful heart,
That after my great sleep I may
Awake to thy eternal day! Amen.
Timing : 40 to 45 minutesStudents : threshold or intermediate level (as described by the Common European Framework of Reference)
Mode of interaction : group work. two circles : an inner circle and an outer circle, with around 10 students each
– initiates the discussion by setting a starting question. It may be :
« which feelings does the poet express towards his parents ? / his family ? »
Inner circle’s role
– read the poem aloud (or silently)
– discuss the teacher’s initiating question together
– try to find an appropriate answer to the teacher’s question, referring themselves to the semantic content of the poem
Outer circle’s role
– read the poem
– prepare pens and papers for note taking
– start preparing questions themselves
-supervises students’ work
-provide the necessary feedback
-leads the discussion to the central ideas of the poem (the relationship the poet holds with his family members, what he expects from god, what he expresses towards god, …)
– supervises group and individual performance
– reminds of the need to study the lexis through which ideas are expressed
– records students’ comments and answers
– supervises turn taking
– starting from the teacher’s first question, ask one another questions and discuss answers
– try to reach an agreement on the poet’s attitude, tone, relationship with family members
– debate the poet’s relationship with god
– define the conception the poet has about life, family relationships, spiritual life, …
– observe the inner circle’s discussion
– take notes on what is being discussed
– keep record of the inner circle’s comments and ideas
– allows time for both circles to discuss their ideas
– allows time for the outer circle to evaluate the inner circle’s findings and ask for clarifications
– listen to outer circle’s remarks
– take notes of outer circle’s comments
– get ready to supervise outer circle’s discussion
– listen to outer circle’s remarks
– take notes of outer circle’s comments
– get ready to supervise outer circle’s discussion
– supervises the way the discussion progresses among the members of the outer circles, now the inner circle
– gives feedback
– makes sure the outer circle does not rediscuss the same ideas
-play the role of the outer circle : step back and take note of the main points raised by the outer circle, now the inner circle
– exchange roles with the inner circle
– engage in discussing the ideas involved in the text
– try to broaden the areas of debate not to repeat the same ideas
*** Below is an excerpt from a S.C that I conducted with teachers under my supervision. The purpose was to familiarize them with the concept and the procedure, therefore, to pave the way for them to make use of the S.C with their students.
Remark : P : refers to participant
P 1 : What feelings does the poet hold toward his parents ?
P 2 : Obviously, he respects them.
P 3 : Well, I think it’s more than respect
P 1 : What is it then ?
P 3 : It is love. He loves his parents so much.
Facilitator : What makes you say it’s love, not just respect ? Any proof for what you say from the poem ?
P 3 : Yes, look, the poet uses words and expressions such as : reverence, love, my parents’ hope and joy, grateful heart…. I think it’s strong love and gratitude.
P 4 : Sorry to interrupt but, to my mind, a great deal of the noble feelings the poet holds to his parents and brothers spring from his religious beliefs.
P 2 : What do you mean ? Can you explain this point ?
P 4 : Sure, the poet expresses his reverence in many lines of the poem, particularly by the end. In fact, he’s convinced one day he would meet god, therefore, he has to obey god’s words and be good and obedient to his parents.
P 5 : But do you really believe that our relationship with our parents, our relatives, our friends….depends on our spriritual beliefs ?…..
After around 15 minutes of heated discussion about important ideas conveyed in the poem, the circles exchanged roles and the new inner circle broadened the horizon of the debate, coming up with interesting issues relating to family relationships, disintegration of family knots, beliefs about god and religion : ethics or moral value ? respect or fear ? obedience or reverence ?…..
The experienced proved to what extent S.C are efficient in building relationships within class members, promoting interaction, enhancing personal competencies and strenthening social ties among the classroom community. I advise all EFL teachers to try the S.C with their students. Such a technique would allow them to pass from the classical, transmissive way of teaching to a ‘ student- friendly’ method that breaks the routine and helps students relish their English classes.
Downloadable Lesson Plan
Israel, E. 2002. Examining multiple perspectives in literature. In inquiry and the literary text: constructing discussions in the English classroom : James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
Brookfield, S. D and Preskill. S 1999. Discussion as a way of teaching : tools and techniques for university teachers : Open University Press.
Dickens, E December 9, 2016. Center for teaching excellence : retrieved on January 21, 2017.
Lambright, L 1995. Creating a dialogue : Socratic seminars and educational reform. Community college journal V65 n4, 30-34.
Adler, M. J 1984. The Plaidia program : an educational syllabus : New York, Macmillan.
Guthrie, W.K.C 1968. The Greek philosophers from Thales to Aristotle : London, Routledge.
Copeland, M 2005. Socratic circles : fostering critical and creative thinking in middle and high school : Stenhouse Publishers.
Taylor, J October 6, 2016. aeon magazine. (accessed January 15, 2017)