Socratic circle critical for classroom discussions

Nathan Sherman

The classroom is evolving.More often now, we see smaller class sizes utilizing Socratic circle-style classes. Ideally, this is how the Socratic circle format works — the teacher speaks briefly about a broad concept or theme from a book that the class is reading.The professor then takes a seat as a participant, steering the conversation of the students with subtle hints and stimulating questions.

Nathan Sherman
Nathan Sherman

From this position, knowledge can be shared more easily because everyone becomes an active member of the class. This system is in many ways advantageous to the professor and the students. It is led by questions that provoke a will to respond. It is an ancient idea, but one that still encourages students by testing their comprehension and ability to translate information into punctual arguments.

What sets this classroom design apart is that students are actually listening, not just hearing. When only one person is speaking for a long period of time, it isn’t as easy to stay invested.

When anyone may speak at any time, with civilized conduct of course, ideas can begin with one student while being built upon by other members of the class. Students and professors alike are much more encouraged to speak in such an environment — it makes it difficult to stay silent, benefiting everyone. Even for the teacher who has read the book a hundred times, there is always a new way to look at it, given the right environment for idea sharing and open discussion.

Additionally, Socratic classrooms often reveal friendships that wouldn’t have been made otherwise. Not only can one bond with their peers, but the professor is seen on a more approachable level.

Rather than spewing facts and statistics that need to be recorded and memorized, professors are instead providing their students with basic ideas and information while allowing them to dissect it on an indivual level.

Following individual comprehension, group discussion allows everyone’s interpretation of the concept to be brought to light. Within this system everyone still has their own individual opinion, it has just been stretched and built upon by the ideas of others.

When the conversation has been ignited, the teacher is able to lead without lecture, speaking out only to steer the class back to focus. This is learning, but it is also exciting and fun. The diversity of the classroom dictates the variety of life experience that feeds into analysis of a common subject.

Of course, this style of discussion is not possible for all classes, but in many it is. Many English classes are set up in this manner. English professor Cameron Contois said this system has a positive influence on participation, and gives everyone more confidence. Discussion breeds shared experience, which in turn helps everyone’s understanding of not only the subject material, but of each other.

As mentioned before, Socratic circles do not work in every department or classroom environment. It requires small class sizes, which are hard to come by and getting harder in most cases. Some classes are taken by hundreds of people, and for such classes, it seems the lecture system of teaching must be used.

Socratic circles also rely heavily on an arguable topic. Some areas of knowledge are hard fact, making attempts at interpretation either regurgitation or folly. It is clear that not all categories of learning are taught the same. The exact sciences differ in many ways than the language arts. There are many people who prefer to learn in an environment where the answer is clear and defined.  The trouble of this undisputed fact is that there is rarely an examination into the source of the subject area, regardless of how factual it is.

However, some elements of the Socratic style could greatly benefit the lecture hall.

A professor shouldn’t always be the one answering questions, and it would greatly affect student engagement if they knew their professor as a person and not as someone who simply stands at the front of a lecture hall and talks for the entire class time. A balance needs to be found between these two sides of the educational coin.

Dialogue and discussion promote companionship, critical thinking and the ability to synthesize information. Synthesis is the ability to draw information from multiple sources and draw relevant details and significant concepts.

It turns faces in a crowd to personalities in a room, and encourages curiosity, engagement and critical thinking. The facts of the lecture hall become irrelevant without the ability to understand the themes that draw them together.

With information so readily accessible, the memorization of facts can bog down a fledgling mind.

It is more important to develop the skills to analyze and civilly discuss this information — this is what advances culture. Through constructive discussion, the Socratic circle gives us not only the knowledge we seek, but also an understanding and appreciation for the process in which we learned it.