Sunday, October 14, 2012

Easy as Fish in a Barrel: Structured Socratic Discussions

Having all students involved in a focused class discussion instead of being prompted and lead by the teacher, requires all students to be invested in the process. When the discussion is structured so that all students are vested in the process, students can use critical thinking to practice crafting and supporting arguments.

In this video posted on EdutopiaKIPP King Collegiate High School teachers learn to facilitate fishbowl discussions to promote the Socratic process in class.Using a critical thinking model, the teacher serves as a facilitator of the discussion and orchestrator of the activity. While this isn't a new technique, there are key components mentioned in the video that are applicable for any classroom.

The Socratic Seminar or fishbowl discussion begins with the layout of the classroom and the assigning of roles to students. The classroom is set up with an inner square of about 12 desks, surrounded by an outer square of 12-14 desks.  Students sitting in the inner square are discussing, debating, and arguing the specific topic as they reference texts, use analytic language, connect to other statements made, and agree or disagree with the other participants. Students sitting in the outer square evaluate the participants in the discussion by being assigned a specific role: reporter, silent contributor, and shadow-er.

The video does not explain in great detail the exact tasks each role plays. Generally, the reporter "reports" on the action of the discussion (provides a report after or during the discussion?); the silent contributor participates in the discussion as if he/she were in the middle, but is not allowed to speak until the conversation has ended; and the shadow-er is directly assigned a student in the inner square to evaluate on specific and multiple points.I would think it is awkward for the silent contributor to contribute at the end of the discussion-- although both the reporter and silent contributor would provide an opportunity for reviewing the discussion overall.  The silent contributor would also have to be a student who has self-control, something many students need practice one. The shadower would be the most assigned role by pairing up students in both the inner and outer squares.

Why I like this...
Students need structure: The classroom set up promotes the discussion and puts students on the spot and the specific roles keep everyone involved. The roles are different from the ones I've seen before and I can see practical application-- my favorite being the shadow-er. I also like that it is another opportunity for peer review/evaluation and that the students are taking responsibility for the discussion instead of listening to the teacher lecturing. I also like that this activity promotes face to face conversation--something modern students need to practice since they like having their faces glued to a computer or cell phone screen.

What I dislike...
The 4:22 video does not provide suggestions for shy students to overcome fear of speaking in class nor does it provide specific examples of what happens after the discussion. The video assumes that all students will be prepared and responsible in the discussion process-- I can't always assume students will be model citizens of the process. Also, specific rubrics are not provided. In theory, I like the possibilities of this activity, but realistically, the teacher and students need to be organized, prepared, and structured.

Previously, I've used a koosh ball or other soft material ball to facilitate whole class discussions.  The room is arranged so that all students are facing one another in a large square or circle (no one in the middle). Students come to class having written down 3 questions on the assigned topic. They take turns throwing the ball to either ask a question or answer a question.  One student is charged with keeping track of who speaks and how many times. The goal is to have everyone in class ask at least one question and add to an answer for one question.  This works well as an introductory activity to class discussions, but the conversation becomes too disjointed having to rely on the throwing of the ball to keep it going. I will say that the baseball players in the class usually get a kick out of this type of discussion.

Applying the KIPP fishbowl technique in my classroom, instead of being in small groups (which is my usual set up for structured discussions), my students could as a whole class argue answers to open-ended questions. Since my classroom layout is similar to the fishbowl layout, it would be easy enough to move some desks around so that students could debate on topics that connect to the literature studied (heroism, leadership, euthanasia, resolving conflict, civil rights, attaining the American Dream, etc). The Socratic discussion could be used as a precursor for writing an argumentative essay. Also, as stated in the video, the skills used in a Socratic discussion are the same skills that are used in daily life when arguing or supporting any point made.  Small group, whole class, or just speaking to one person, the critical thinking skills used in the Socratic discussion are skills that students need for every class and beyond.


Update 12/7/12:  Applying the Socratic Seminar in Class

Students engaged in their first Socratic Seminar based on questions connected to Chapters 1-2 in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. I adapted the process shown in the video above.

My Process:

  1. Desks were arranged to create an inner circle of about 8 students and outer circle with the remaining members of class. Ground rules and expectations were discussed.
  2. Students in the outer circle used their devices or a netbook to sign on to and join the chat room I created for the backchannel discussion. The outer circle asked questions and made comments. 
  3. Four students in the outer circle volunteered to be the two Recorders of Answers and the two Reporters of Interesting Points. They kept track of the conversation on a collaborative Google Doc.
  4. The discussion questions were posted one at a time on the front board and I moved the conversation along as needed. 
  5. After about 10-15 minutes, the students changed roles and new questions were asked of the inner circle.
The questions themselves were open-ended, connected to the novel, and controversial so that students could reference the text, provide numerous opinions, and support their arguments. Students stated that they liked being given the choice to participate in the spotlight of the inner circle or keep a lower profile, but still strong presence, in the chat room.

After some initial trepidation, silliness in the backchannel chat room, and the inner circle learning not to talk over each other, the conversation progressed smoothly. I was able to moderate and facilitate the conversation as needed--which was minimal, except as you'll see towards the end of period 2's conversation. Notice the students aren't shy for calling out the inner circle or noting when students are monopolizing the conversation.

For the first time doing a backchannel discussion, things went well. I'm pleased with the level of engagement and can ignore the silly comments. Some of the students' comments were spot on and most haven't read to the end of the novella. One student stated that George was the kind of friend who would take a bullet for Lennie-- little does he know where George will "take" that bullet! A few knowing students did chuckle at the use of the cliche in period 8.

Today went so well because it was structured but still allowed the students to take control. I just hovered and monitored until needed.  The next step will be to add the role of the shadower so that students can get peer evaluations on their speaking and participation skills.

No comments:

Post a Comment