Cultivating Conversation: Socratic Circles

Cultivating Conversation: Socratic Circles

emily3425-finalWritten by Upper School Humanities Teacher Emily Burlew

How is it that Gilgamesh, a ruthless ruler, can grow attached to Enkidu so much so that his response to Enkidu’s death is an extended and painful lament? What can we as readers of Daniel Defoe learn from his depictions of Robinson Crusoe’s perseverance? In Othello, why does Shakespeare portray Iago as a two-faced character? Seventh graders at Veritas will wrestle through these questions, as well as many others, as they work to develop the art of discussion.

The Veritas faculty is often encouraged to consider who our students will be at the age of forty, sixty-five, eighty. Looking beyond college admissions and the transition from student to employee, what kind of people will these students become? This question can be answered in many different ways. Directing it towards the topic at hand: We desire to cultivate young men and women who will long to read great literature and engage in the surrounding world, and who will understand how to converse with others on a variety of topics and in a variety of settings. The time spent on conversation as these students start their Upper School careers begins to lay the foundation for this long-term objective.

Socratic Circles are a set of formal discussions in which small numbers of students take turns participating in timed conversations while their teacher and peers observe, and afterwards critique, the dialogue. These conversations are not to be debates, for they do not result in winning sides. Rather, the goal of the exercise is for students to work together and to collectively come to find the truth in their course studies. It is an opportunity to struggle through complicated questions, and for individuals to present opinions that are supported by class texts, cultural examples including literature and film, and their own experiences. During the first year of discussion development, emphasis is given to the importance of including every student and the acquired skill of listening to others, while both being a speaking participant and an active observer.

As speaking contributors to the conversation, students progress through a given set of questions in order to unpack a historical or literary topic from their recent classroom study. They summarize the Egyptians’ emphasis on order and its contributions to the civilizations’ early success. They consider how the characters’ morality in The Good Earth fluctuates as their fortunes in life change and ponder how this reflects their own human nature. They revisit the effects of the Chinese writing system on Chinese society and compare those effects to the influence of their own language on American culture.

As active observers of the conversation, students complete various jobs that direct their listening. For example, the Statician records how many contributions each participant makes. The Intercepter keeps track of how many interruptions are made, and the Librarian lists the specific examples that are used to support claims. Over time, as a Statician notices inches of tallies beside one name and none next to another, as an Intercepter’s hand grows tired, and as a Librarian sees how textual examples strengthen a viewpoint, the seventh graders identify the elements of a great conversation and the aspects that detract from it.

Socratic Circles serve as a structure to guide young students toward discussing substantive concepts in the midst of middle school insecurities. They encourage learning, seeking, sharing, applying. As a teacher, it is a joy to hear the class wrestle with complicated questions, share opposing views that are supported by examples, and discover themes that they hadn’t seen before. It is our hope that this process will enrich their participation in high school and university courses, yes, but also around dinner tables with their children, conference rooms with coworkers, and even board game gatherings in their retirement communities.