Can We Talk?

What students can learn through intentional conversation (and how to get them to speak up)

January 28, 2017
illustration of a group of kids sitting awkwardly in a circle, not making eye contact

No one is making eye contact. Eighteen students arrayed in a circle, and all are getting an A+ in avoidance tactics. It’s early on in my college-style history seminar, and we’re holding one of our first weekly conversations.

The goal of these free-form, 45-minute conversations is to allow students to dive deeper into the week’s readings and topics, ask questions cut short by yesterday’s bell, or present ideas conceived late at night.

A Socratic circle is not a debate. There are no right answers or winners. No one raises a hand. The learning happens in the ebb and flow of conversation among students.

Right now, though, in my classroom, you could hear a pin drop.

Sitting outside the circle, I fight the urge to jump in, pose a question, cold call a student. I’m determined to wait them out.

Our conversations are a derivation of a Socratic seminar — a structured format inspired by the teaching style of Socrates. Rather than lecture, Socrates is said to have encouraged his students to think critically by posing questions and urging them to discuss with each other. The method is routinely used in graduate schools, most prominently in law schools, but has also been revised for younger grades.

A Socratic circle is not a debate. There are no right answers or winners. No one raises a hand. The learning happens in the ebb and flow of conversation among students, in the process of collaborative thinking.

It is a type of discussion that can cultivate the kind of deeper learning that Jal Mehta studies extensively, learning that pushes students to sink into material, think critically, and direct their own academic exploration. These are the essential skills students will need for college seminars and study groups, as well as the skills they will need in business and in their roles as engaged citizens.

But developing these skills can be tricky.

Socratic circles are often set up with two concentric circles of students: the inner circle discusses the text, while the outer circle observes the interactions, mannerisms, and contributions of their peers. Class concludes with students writing feedback to their friends. The goal is to intentionally teach the components of a great conversation.

With jam-packed curriculum and a looming class bell, it can be tempting to jump in and “save” a floundering conversation. Don’t! Allow students the time to think, to form ideas, and to push themselves.

While my students are quick to strike up conversations in the halls or at lunch, discussing history and literature does not come easy. We begin with the basics. I have them think back to great conversations they’ve been a part of. What made them great, I ask? We tease apart the elements: friends listened and respected their ideas or points of view, the topic was interesting, no one talked over anyone, they learned something new.

Then, the set up. A strong Socratic circle has three key elements:

  • A rich text to explore, with layers of meaning and possible interpretations. Passages from speeches or excerpts from novels, poems, or song lyrics all could form the bases of a strong discussion.
  • Discussion guidelines. Often classes are grounded in a student-teacher dynamic: Teacher asks a question, student answers; student asks a question, teacher answers. In Socratic circles, students are on their own. They draw on the elements of a strong conversation to guide class discussion.
  • Conversation building blocks. Not all students will have had practice with in-depth, free-form academic discussions. I provide them with prompts — methods they can use to link each other’s ideas together and draw out concepts from a text. In my class of ELL students, I created a reference sheet of prompts: “Where does that idea come from in the text?” “________, is this what you mean to say?” “I see a connection between what _____ and ____ said.”

But despite thoughtful planning, the question remains: What do you do when you’re facing a circle of silent students? I’ve found three successful strategies.

Wait. With jam-packed curriculum and a looming class bell, it can be tempting to jump in and “save” a floundering conversation. Don’t! Allow students the time to think, to form ideas, and to push themselves to join in without having to rely on you.

Talk frequently. Make Socratic circles a weekly or bi-weekly part of your curriculum. The more frequent, the more comfortable and invested students will become. Regularity will also help you encourage and support quieter students to find their voice.

Set individual goals. Keep track of the silent students and, in a quiet moment after class, make sure to check in with each. With my shyest students, I discuss strategies. Together we set goals: in next week’s circle, I may suggest that try to speak three times; for some, it might be try to speak just one.

With enough persistence, you hit a magical tipping point — the moment when the conversation flows seamlessly, students lean forward eagerly. For our college-style seminar, the transformation took place in week 10. Suddenly it seemed as if everyone was trying to jump in. My quietest student was challenging ideas and leading the discussion, my shyest student was posing questions. The bell rang, but not a single student made a move to pack up. In the end I had to step in — not to start a conversation, as I had feared, but to pause it. We would pick up tomorrow I assured all.

Additional Resources

A detailed guide for planning, setting up, and running a successful Socratic circle, from Facing History and Ourselves.

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About the Author

Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.