Blending Socratic discussion with modern technology


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Socratic discussion
(Image credit: Felicia Buitenwerf/Unsplash)

One of the most effective teaching methods for the past 2,500 years has been the Socratic method, which encourages learning and critical thinking through fruitful dialogue and debate.

When digital learning tools and curricula came on the scene, it appeared that classrooms fueled by Socratic discussions would go the way of dinosaurs — or Socrates. How could old-fashioned classroom discussions possibly compete with exciting and engaging digital content?

Truth is, they are a perfect fit. Not only do modern tech and tried-and-true teaching methods complement each other, they also produce thoughtful students who can debate respectfully with peers — something we desperately need more of in our fractured society.

Let the digital handle the facts

The best way to leverage digital tools as part of a Socratic teaching approach is to allow digital to impart knowledge to students. Students should read the lesson and consume the multimedia available in the digital curriculum before coming to class.

This gives them time to understand the material, think about it and come prepared to discuss it. It also frees teachers to direct discussions, motivate students and impart wisdom.

Students who fail to do the readings in advance — identified either through the honor system or through analytical tools available with some online curriculum, should be placed into a separate group so they can complete the reading before joining the discussion group.

The discussion is where the magic happens in the classroom, but it takes a skilled teacher to ensure that interactions stay focused and fruitful.

Tips for leading a Socratic discussion

Socratic discussion can be among the most rewarding learning experiences for both participants and discussion leaders. Preparing to lead a Socratic discussion is very different from preparing for traditional lectures and discussions. Here are five proven tips for the discussion leader.

Know the material; come prepared with questions

The role of the discussion leader is to ask probing questions and keep order. This means that leaders must be familiar with the assigned topic and have a good grasp of the arguments surrounding the material. This will allow the leader to provide needed context and to ask questions that probe arguments further.

The best way to prepare is outlined in a book called “How to Read a Book” co-authored by Mortimer Adler, an early devotee of the Great Books Movement. He suggests the following process: Skim the material, and then read it straight through to get an impression of the topic. Think of how you would describe the material in a sentence or two. Next, outline the content and make notes. Pay attention to claims the author makes, the argument behind the claims and passages that are important for the discussion you are leading. Then step back, look at the material as a whole and reflect on its meaning. Do a little research to see what was going on during this time period, and how this content fits into those events.

Finally, prepare some questions to lead the discussion. You can start with a few detailed questions about particular passages that focus on arguments made in the content. Prepare a series of questions including some big questions, as well as follow-up questions, and some higher-level questions that can be used if the discussion gets bogged down in the weeds. Remember to prepare a final question on the bigger meaning of the material.

Keep a double queue

One of the main tasks of the discussion leader is to be sure that no one dominates the conversation and that everyone participates. A great way to do this is by keeping a queue, a fancy name for a list. When someone wants to speak, they raise their hand. Write the names down in the order that people raise their hands, and then call on those people to comment. The issue you may run into is that others raise their hand to comment on the last speaker, and the flow is interrupted if you simply follow the queue.

The solution is to keep two queues. The first queue is for people who want to raise the main points. Candidates for this queue need to signal that they desire the floor to introduce a new or substantial idea. Then, parallel to this queue, create a second one for people who wish to respond directly to such a point. This is the queue for short comments, clarifying questions or quick rebuttals. A comment from the short queue should take no more than a sentence or so.

The job of the discussion leader is to keep the discussion flowing by managing the long and short queues.

Don’t be a slave to the queue — or your questions

As a discussion leader, it is important that you quickly establish your authority by demonstrating that the main point raised in queue one is limited. If a person starts off by saying, “I have three points to make,” interrupt and say, “OK, make one now, and I’ll put you back on the queue for another one later.” Be assertive with this, but also realize that sometimes an argument has several parts. In that case, the speaker needs to be succinct.

Likewise, remind “short point” speakers in queue two that they are jumping the queue and therefore need to be respectful of those waiting patiently in queue one. If necessary, politely interrupt and tell a speaker you will put them in the queue for a main comment.

Next, don’t feel an obligation to call on everyone in queue two. Encourage people to pass on their turn if they believe their point has been raised or is no longer relevant. People will begin to realize that the quality of their main point can be measured by the number and quality of responses.

Finally, don’t be a slave to the queue. If someone has spoken a lot, feel free to skip him or her and move on to another person who has spoken less. When reluctant speakers raise their hand, feel free to jump them to the top of the queue. Likewise, follow the body language of the quieter ones in the group, and ask them if they would like to comment if they look interested.

Keep the tempo going

When it feels like no progress is being made on a topic, encourage the group to move on. Leaders can signal that enough has been said on a topic by interjecting a new question before someone is about to speak from the main queue. The best time to do this is when there is only one more person on the main queue. The leader can announce that “X is the last speaker in the main queue, but before he speaks, I’d like to raise a new question.” This avoids having an empty queue and gives the class time to think about the new question.

If you happen to build up a long main queue, stop the short one for a few minutes to get the main points on the table. Sometimes it works to call on a couple of people at once and state that the short queue will be suspended until the group gets caught up. Encouraging students to be as brief as possible will help, and it may encourage people to let their turn pass to move things along.

Begin and end on time

Beginning on time signals to students that it is disrespectful to make those who arrive on time wait for a latecomer. Ending on time reinforces the whole point of Socratic discussions: not to achieve a specific result, but to engage in a shared discovery. The point of ending on time is not to stop the conversation, but rather to allow people who want to follow up with one or two others to do so. The formal discussion session should end so that participants have plenty of time to follow up individually.

One way to do this is to use a 50-minute period as follows:

  • Five minutes to have everyone get settled and prepare for the opening question.
  • A 30-minute Socratic discussion session.
  • Five more minutes to divide up into small groups of two to five students. These groups can be self-forming, or you can assign them so that throughout the semester they are continuously mixed up.
  • 10 minutes in small groups to discuss points made, identify errors and present new thoughts.

The wisdom coach

The beauty of combining a digital curriculum with the traditional Socratic discussion model is that teachers can get back to doing what they love: imparting wisdom, motivating students and watching them grow.

If done properly, the Socratic discussion will become your favorite way of teaching and your student’s favorite way of learning.

Fred Fransen is CEO of Certell, the maker of the Potential family of free digital social studies course packages. Fransen was educated in the Socratic Method while receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He has participated in or led hundreds of Socratic discussion sessions, as well as led training workshops on Socratic discussion.


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