A Reflection on Reflection in Socratic Seminars…
By John Zola, Trainer www.johnzola.com
Socratic seminars are a powerful form of classroom discussion that provide opportunities for authentic conversation and rigorous meaning making. In a seminar, students work to make “meanings” of an ambiguous text by using the key skills related to thinking, speaking, and listening. When the seminars really “work,” they provide one of the most memorable learning experiences for students and teachers alike.
Because there is meaning to be made from the process of making meaning, a Socratic seminar should always finish with a “critique.” In our seminars students know that the seminar follows with a “whip around” where all of the students in the class, participants and observers, take turns to share one thing they each “noticed” about their conversation. Unlike the actual seminar, all are required to contribute because everyone was in the room and had the capacity to notice something. As students do the critique over time, their responses tend to become more specific and helpful in building a culture of seminars in the classroom. The critique helps “us” do “our” work better in seminars.
But why take precious class time for reflection on such a finished seminar? First, it’s great to hear some students say, aloud, they loved the seminar or text; while it is also important that others have a chance express what didn’t work for them. In these whip arounds, students go beyond what they noticed about the text and their new understanding of it, and often delve into the process and group interactions of what took place. The critique allows students to share reflections of their own participation…”I talked too much” or “I had ideas, but couldn’t find my way into the conversation.” There might also be comments on the behaviors of classmates…”some people talked too much!” or “people talked over each other and didn’t really listen.” This provides opportunities to open the discussion about why some people talk more or what might be different in the next seminar. In the process of reflection, the class is taking ownership for its own seminar behaviors. For the teacher, it’s a window into the varied experiences students just had and how they are processing them.
Equity Maps is an excellent tool to support this process of reflection and promotes the group taking ownership of seminar behaviors. Data is always helpful. If there are comments that “not very many students talked today,” you can turn to Equity Maps to see actual data. Frequently, more students participated than remembered or noticed! Playback of portions of the seminar can help go deeper into student comments during the critique. With the Checknotes function too, students can quickly see the nature of what they shared: the types of questions, references to the text, or number of examples added from class, to name a few. From this tool, goals for future participation can be crafted by the students…and suggested by the teacher.
It’s debatable whether it’s true that “the unexamined life is not worth leading.” It’s not in doubt that the “examined seminar will improve over time!” Taking time for reflection, in the form of the “critique” and using a tool like Equity Maps, is well worth the small amount of class time that it actually takes.
John Zola is available to conduct workshops for schools and districts. Workshops are highly participatory and provide time to adapt activities to teacher classrooms and communities (Jzola53@yahoo.com).
John Zola spent 32 years as a high school social studies teacher; most recently at New Vista High School, a “break the mold” public high school in Boulder, Colorado. Throughout his career, John has trained colleagues in active learning strategies and Socratic seminars. His workshops help teachers make the voice and work of students central in the classroom. In his workshops, participants “do” the strategies, discuss how they might work in a variety of settings, and have opportunities to adapt the strategies for use in their own classrooms. John’s workshops are interactive and highly participatory. John currently conducts in-service trainings on Socratic seminars, and engaging teaching strategies in a variety of locations around the United States, Central Europe, Latin America, and Asia.
“Maintaining Student Equity in Classroom Discussions”
Extract from Jared Colley’s Blog: Jared Colley chairs the English Department at The Oakridge School where he also teaches literature and humanities courses in the upper division.
As an English teacher, I often have discussion days in class either in the form of Socratic inner/outer circles or in a Harkness-style context. One thing that Harkness has taught me is that there is often a disconnect between how I perceive the discussion to go and what the data actually reveals upon reflection afterwards. What I mean to say is that many times in class I thought a discussion went really well: the energy was high, and the insights were diverse and illuminating, and I didn’t have to say very much at all. However, the data may have painted a very different picture; for instance, whether I immediately realized it or not, perhaps the conversation lacked the proper balance of gender equity. Or perhaps only 80% of the class truly participated, and the excluded 20% were the same students who always seem to be overlooked and therefore not heard.How do we maintain real equity in classroom conversations, and more importantly, how do we track that over a sustained period of time?
One program that has been a game-changer for me as a teacher is the iPad-based app, Equity Maps. The program allows you to map the room digitally in terms of who sits where, thereby allowing the teacher to enter each student’s name as well as his or her gender.
Equity Maps debuts for Facilitators of the Adaptive Schools® Organization
The Adaptive Schools® organization provides powerfully practical methods for educational leaders at all levels to increase collaboration, improve communication, and inspire adaptivity in schools and organizations around the world. Equity Maps debuted via youtube as a tool for facilitators of their organization. January, 2017
See how Equity Maps can help your organization:
Quickly and easily replay notes from the meeting according to each speaker.
Show the group how time and contributions unfolded.
Encourage wider involvement from everyone in the group!
Building Better Classroom Dialogue: 3 Lesson Ideas to Strengthen Your Socratic Seminars
By Dave Nelson, Creator of Equity Maps
National Facilitator, National School Reform Faculty
Social Studies Teacher & Coordinator of Professional Learning & Growth, American Community Schools of Athens, Greece
Create Experiences for Students!
I’ve always sought to create experiences for students, presenting them with opportunities to interact with the content, and with each other, through simulations, debates, enactments, trials, service learning opportunities, and Socratic Seminars, to name a few. When carefully designed, from set-up to reflection and debrief, these opportunities become extremely powerful and memorable learning experiences for students.
I'm teaching at an international school in Athens, Greece and can't think of better place for students to engage in Socratic Seminars and many other forms of classroom dialogue. It's perhaps a little odd to be teaching American Studies here, but we've created an amazing integrated History & Literature American Studies course and our 10th grade students come from all over the world, bringing with them vastly different perspectives to the themes of the class – our goal is to consistently create opportunities for their classmates to hear them.
Even though I’ve always planned under the premise that I shouldn’t be the one doing the most talking, especially within classrooms of such broad diversity, 27 years of teaching experience has also taught me that our students aren’t always equally equipped with the skills to question, to construct dialogue and above all, to listen—not only to us but also to their peers. Indeed, we can't assume that students have an understanding of the “soft skills” of communication, inquiry and leadership, especially of those needed for true dialogue and collaboration.
It is in this context that I share three lesson strategies that my teaching partner and I have developed to even more intentionally scaffold the essential skills of dialogue into our lesson designs. Over the past two years, with our expanded use of Socratic Seminars, these are but three things that have made a huge difference in the level of performance of our students!
Lesson Strategy #1- Listen.... and start from there!
We didn’t start the year with classroom rules and lengthy explanations of expectations, rather we started with listening: students listening to each other and engaging in the idea of what true listening means. We asked students to read an article that I came across by Nancy Kline, entitled “Learn How to Listen in a Radically Different Way”, which was published in December of 2015 on utne.com. We emphasized that without carefully reading the article that they wouldn’t be able to participate in the next day’s lesson with their peers; encouragingly, nearly all students reviewed the article at home, highlighting and annotating key take-a ways.
Using a powerful text protocol entitled “Save the Last Word”[i], designed by the National School Reform Faculty®, we placed the students in groups of four, carefully spacing them around the room so that each group had its own little personal zone. We began the lesson by lighting-up the wall with a quote by a Greek Philosopher, Epictetus, who reportedly said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Our students were not amused when we told them that today they would have three ears, and listen three times as much as they speak.
After carefully facilitating the set-up, we watched the students engage through the steps of the “Save the Last Word” protocol; students actively shared their choices of extracts and listened to their peers’ interpretations of those extracts, before they themselves had the “last word”. This double block of 45 students was simultaneously practicing, applying, and engaging their listening.
Students reflected during the debrief, sharing stories from their own lives, especially about times they had felt listened to and when they had not. They shared how the lesson went for them, mostly positive, acknowledging their peers’ contributions and their own understandings. They also reflected on how difficult the process was, sharing their reservations about the effort needed to truly listen.
What an incredible foundation for the creation of a learning community in our classroom!
Lesson Strategy #2- Defining Dialogue vs. Discussion & Debate
We as teachers first need to understand the differences among dialogue, discussion, and debate before we can expect the same from our students. I first clinched an understanding after reading Peter Senge’s classic about learning organizations, entitled The Fifth Discipline. If you haven’t read it, I totally suggest that you do. Although I initially found it difficult to capture Senge’s tone while reading the print version, when I yielded to the audio version during my morning commutes, Senge’s systems thinking philosophy came alive.
When you get a copy of The Fifth Discipline, either fast forward or flip to chapter one where Senge presents a description of dialogue as a key discipline of a learning organization that seeks to create “team learning”. It’s perhaps a little dense for students, but an important base for us teachers. I totally recommend his book for valuable insights and if you prefer only the extract, it’s online as a teaser. I think that you’ll find as I have that his systems thinking approach, especially in education, resonates often!
To help the students understand the difference among dialogue, debate and discussion, we created a thirty minute mini-lesson that could also be used in nearly any middle school or high school class.
Applying a standard Think-Pair-Share, we first asked students to individually read the characteristics of dialogue, prioritizing two as the most important for the class. Pairing with someone at least two chairs away from them --just a little moving always helps to reboot their energy level—the students shared their observations, while having to reach consensus on one characteristic that they agreed was most important. Finally, we asked the entire class to stand and one pair at a time each shared their first choice, while the other student pairs who had chosen the same joined them and sat down. Gradually, all of the ideas were heard and the class was seated
One by one, we whittled through the students’ observations and conclusions to reach a better understanding of the differences among the three modes of interaction. It was with this base of shared understanding that we then distributed the overall procedures and details of how we as a class would conduct our Socratic Seminars.
After the class finds a common understanding of the key elements of listening and dialogue, in many ways an understanding that they themselves create, they are better equipped to construct richer Socratic Seminars.
As well, I find these added layers of concept and skill development essential to a classroom that continually invites dialogue, whether in daily lessons or in Socratic Seminars. When motivated to become better listeners and questioners, and when guided to build understanding through contextual references, students carry the class into another realm of instruction.
As a side note, here’s another useful resource entitled “Comparing Debate, Dialogue and Discussion”[iii], which may be more applicable for groups of students with more experience with Socratic Seminars or it can be used mid-year to expand or reinforce the concepts presented above.
Lesson Strategy #3- Record, Chart and Debrief with Equity Maps™ iPad App
John Dewey, American Psychologist and Educational reformer proclaimed in 1933 that “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”[iv] Within any process, debrief and reflection are undeniably inseparable from growth. Here, in this third strategy, we offer an innovative way to improve student reflection to build better classroom dialogue, with wider more equitable participation.
Using Equity Maps iPad app in the classroom, we’re able to provide easy to understand descriptive data to help students more deeply reflect and debrief their experiences. The graphic fast-forward playback of the flow of the Socratic Seminar acts as a mirror for the class to look into. When the students are presented with descriptive data of the levels of participation and overall levels of equity, they use that new point of reference to reflect not only on their own contributions, but also on the group’s actions as a whole:
How did the group share its airtime?
Were some students with a lot of ideas, just a little too quiet?
Were some of the group members doing way too much talking?
How much time was taken in “chaos”, with too many students talking at once?
How equitable were the contributions of the group members in comparison to past seminars?
Debriefing with Equity Maps:
Our most effective debrief sessions take place using the Feedback Frames from Equity Maps when they are projected on the screen for the entire class to reflect, asking them to consider the overall goals of their Socratic Seminar in relation to the content and the dialogue process. Given some independent time, students reflect within two levels of a T-chart:
1) What do you notice about yourself?
2) What do you notice about the group as whole?
The Feedback Frames are projected for the class to see:
One by one, I show the group images from the Feedback Frames, beginning with the graphic Playback Session of the seminar. I replay the charting of the seminar at the “faster” or “fastest” speeds, with a 30 minute seminar taking 30-40 seconds to replay. After they observe the graphic replay, I remind them to write something in each column of their T-Chart.
Moving to the Group Analytics, I tap on each participant for the # of Times and Total Time Spoken by each student. Once again they are reminded to write something on their T-Chart.
Continuing, I display the Gender Equity, pausing for them to interpret and reflect on the average time spoken and the average times spoken by males and females in the group.
Finally, I reveal the group’s Equity Factors asking them to observe the levels of participation and the overall Equity Quotient for the seminar. I suggest that they may want to consider the Equity Factors from their last seminar when reflecting on their T-Chart.
Largely depending on time, we sometimes have them pair up to reflect on their notes, while other times we will share out ideas immediately in the large group. At the very least, we ask them to write 2-3 conclusions based on their reflection notes from their T-Chart.
My favorite version of the class debrief is to end with each student using their reflection notes to set a personal goal and to suggest a class goal for the next lesson or seminar. These are typically given as exit slips (we refer to “Check-out” slips) and can easily be highlighted during the next day’s warm-up activity.
In all, Feedback Frames provide a neutral “third-point” of reference for students to reflect and debrief, so that they are not directing their comments as criticism to individuals but rather as references to the graphs or playback chart. It’s in these debrief sessions that Dewey’s conclusions ring true: “We do not learn from experience [or as much anyway], we learn from reflecting on experience.”
Another way of looking at the potential of Equity Maps is to think about the power of providing readily accessible formative assessment data to inform students’ learning and growth. Here, Equity Maps provides formative assessment data both as responsive feedback “for learning” and reflective feedback “as learning”. Watching the process unfold confirms that the strongest growth occurs when students come to their own conclusions after having observed the data and upon receiving grounded feedback from their peers.
Looking ahead to v2 of Equity Maps:
As we, along with several other teachers, have used v1 of Equity Maps iPad app in the classroom, we’ve also realized that the app itself can be expanded to address additional needs, such as expanded data for student reflection and for summative class assessments. After considering the feedback from several users, we are preparing v2 of Equity Maps, which will bring added functionality of customized room arrangements, new “check-lists” that will allow users to take notes on the quality/nature of each student’s contribution (ideal for tracking custom characteristics or performance data for participation rubrics), and expanded Participant Analytics for student reflection and/or summative assessment data for teachers. These are just a few of the features that will be added soon, available free of charge with the next update and purchase of v1 of Equity Maps.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts as well as your own strategies for improving these “soft skills” in the classroom. I'll be listening carefully and I'm looking forward to reflecting on what’s to come!
A special thanks to Mr. J. Rue, Mr. Hercules L, Mr. Pappa W, & Mrs. G Young: Inspiring Literature Teachers-- Fantastic working with you in the classroom!
There are multiple ways to connect Equity Maps to your classes’ projector or monitor. The fastest is to stream via an Apple TV using iPad’s AirPlay. When I don’t have access to an Apple TV, I use a fire-cable with a VGA plug directly to the projector. Another excellent option is to download X-Mirage to stream directly to your projector connected computer.
[i] “Save the Last Word”, www.nsrfharmony.org. The older version of this protocol is available for free on the National School Reform Faculty® website. I recommend, however, the newly designed protocols, which you can obtain by becoming a member or becoming trained as a Critical Friends Group® coach. Money well spent with many incredible tools for your classroom!
[ii] I’d like to cite this properly, but haven’t found the origin, although it ubiquitously appears over the internet; if you created it, I’d love to know so that I can give you credit.
[iii] This source was compiled by compiled and adapted by Ratnesh Nagda, Patricia Gurin, Jaclyn Rodriguez & Kelly Maxwell (2008), based on “Differentiating Dialogue from Discussion” a handout developed by Diana Kardia and Todd Sevig (1997) for the Program on Intergroup Relations, Conflict and Community (IGRC), University of Michigan; and, “Comparing Dialogue and Debate,” a paper prepared by Shelley Berman, based on discussions of the Dialogue Group of the Boston Chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR).
[iv] Dewey, John. How We Think. Boston, MA: D.C Heath and Co., 1933. p78.
Now out in the Apple store, Equity Maps app will make for an excellent addition to your classroom. Ideal for Socratic Seminars, Spider Web Discussions, Harkness* style discussions, Literature Circles, or any time students or colleagues engage in dialogue!
*Equity Maps has been developed completely independent of Phillips Exeter Academy and is not affiliated in any way with the academy.