Socratic discussions are based on the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, and his use of dialogue to help his pupils think for themselves. This teaching approach is “a pedagogy which exploits the power of talk to shape children’s thinking and to secure their engagement, learning and understanding” (Alexander, 2008, p. 92).
There is no set way of conducting a Socratic discussion, other than to include open-ended questions to inspire thinking. The following is an example of discussion Level 5/6 students might have towards the end of a unit of work on civics and citizenship.
Through learning on government and democracy, students built understandings, content knowledge and developed some opinions on the values and principles of a democratic government, the three levels of government, the right to vote and the responsibility of voters.
Links to Victorian curriculum
Civics and Citizenship: Government and Democracy
Level 5 and 6: Discuss the values, principles and institutions that underpin Australia’s democratic forms of government and explain how this system is influenced by the Westminster system (VCCCG008)
Level 5 and 6: Describe the roles and responsibilities of the three levels of government, including shared roles and responsibilities within Australia's federal system (VCCCG009)
Level 5 and 6: Identify and discuss the key features of the Australian electoral process (VCCCG010)
Level 5 and 6: Identify the roles and responsibilities of electors and representatives in Australia's democracy (VCCCG011)
The open-ended question is posed before the process begins. For example:
In many countries, voters choose whether to vote or not. What do you think about compulsory voting in Australia?
1. Text annotation
Students are redirected to some of the texts read and viewed about government and democracy. These include newspaper reports, visual images, multimodal and non-fiction texts. Students make notes from the texts with the open-ended question in mind. They can also note comments that they might wish to use in the group discussion.
2. Preparing for the discussion
A list of sentence starters is given to students to guide their discussion. This is very useful when initiating the strategy. Sentence starters are unpacked by the teacher and explained.
For example, a teacher might say “If you disagree with a point of view being stated, wait until the speaker has finished and then use the sentence starter I disagree with your point because….”.
The importance of turn taking, making eye contact, whole body listening and respectful interactions must also be foregrounded before beginning this strategy. An anchor chart to note these factors can be displayed to prompt appropriate behaviours. Monitors could use this chart to inform feedback at the conclusion of the discussion.
3. The Socratic Discussion
Students sit in a circle so that all members can see and respond to each other. The open-ended question is restated. Using their notes as support, students enter the discussion responding to the initial question.
Students enter the conversation using the sentence starters as a guide. For example:
- My point of view is that voting should be up to each person. If you don’t want to vote you shouldn’t have to. What do other people think?
- I disagree with that. I think everyone has a responsibility to participate in the community. If people don’t vote they don’t get a voice or a say.
- I’d like to build on what has been said by adding that some groups of people might just give up and then we would only get the opinions of the loudest or strongest people. They might not be the best voices.
- Can you clarify what you mean by some groups of people giving up?
- I’d like to offer a connection to this discussion. Think of our school. The best way we get a say in what happens is through the student representative council (SRC). Remember when we …. And we bought it up at the SRC and….. Well voting is the same as that. We get electors who can represent us and what we think. They make the laws for us.
- Are there any groups who would disagree with wanting everyone to vote? I think some racist groups might not want other people to have a say. What do you think?
- Do you think that there would be as many people interested in the decisions the government make if they didn’t have to vote?
- Why do you think some people choose not to vote?
The discussion does not follow the protocols of typical classroom situations, in that there is no person leading the discussion and there is no need for raised hands to speak. The teacher should recognise the anxious pause at the start of the discussion and resist intervening. Their role is that of an observer.
There is an expectation that all students in the Socratic discussion participate. Differentiation may occur through negotiation with individual students. Students who lack confidence, may just restate what someone else has said. Students who dominate may have their responses limited to a set number (e.g. through a set of talk tokens).
After a Socratic discussion, students may be asked to write about the topic or reflect upon the discussion. Reflecting upon the discussion could include a self-reflection about their own participation.
- What were my contributions to the group?
- How did I move the dialogue on?
- Who responded to what I said?
- What questions did I present and how did others respond?
- How confident was I during the discussion?
- How did I feel about the topic?
- How did the dialogue change my thinking?
An addition to the Socratic discussion can be the use of monitors. Socratic discussion monitors do not participate in the discussion, but sit outside of the circle. Their role is to monitor the talk turns that moved the dialogue forward and present this information as a reflection to the group when the discussion has finished. Feedback from the monitors could include:
- the number of students who participated in the discussion
- the number of times each student responded
- whether turn taking was present
- whether purposeful listening took place
- whether the interactions were respectful
- a clear example where the discussion was elaborated or justified
- a strong example of how a counter point of view was presented.
It is anticipated that feedback on the group conversation will inform future Socratic discussions including the setting of goals and differentiated expectations for students.
Socratic discussions involve students in higher order thinking, encourage students to reflect and critique and allow multiple perspectives to be examined, in a supportive and collaborative environment (Copeland, 2005).
Alexander, R. (2008). Culture, Dialogue and Learning: Notes on an Emerging Pedagogy In N. Mercer and S. Hodgkinson (Eds.), Exploring Talk in School, (pp. 91-114). London: Sage Publications.
Copeland, M. (2005). Socratic Circles Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking. Portland, MN: Stenhouse Publishers.