Past Socratic Seminars: 3 Steps for Effective Student Discussion

  • Elementary
  • Higher Education
  • High School
  • Middle School
Michael Ma

There is a lot of focus on the structure of student discussions in the classroom—Socratic seminars, think-pair-share, and philosophical chairs are all beneficial protocols, but they are only empty shells if students do not know HOW to talk in an academic setting.

Without deliberate instruction on how to discuss like an academic, most students revert to the same type of simplistic talk they do on social media, a form of communication that does little to move a topic forward or evolve new ideas. There are three steps for pairing structured protocols with student proficiency in academic discussion.

Start with Modeling

Students simply have not seen what academic conversation looks like. Even more harmful than not knowing what academic conversation looks like is the fact that they do not understand it to be part of the adult world, scholar or not. I like to start the year’s development of student talk with modeling effective discussion in different ways. To create buy-in, I find videos of enthusiasts discussing within their field. This clip of football analysts discussing the upcoming playoff games is a good example. Within just a few minutes, most of the thinking skills that define effective discussion are present—evaluation, inference, comparison, and application to new contexts. Finding examples like this helps students understand that effective discussion skills are valuable for excelling in one’s area of interest.

Scaffold with Sentence Stems

The missing attribute of student talk is the framing of discussion in thinking skills. Teachers are effective at designing discussion prompts, but even the most effective discussion prompt is hindered if students do not know how to respond to it in discourse with their peers. Most likely a teacher’s discussion prompt will reflect a thinking skill. For example, a history teacher might ask, “Was Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre accurate?” which demands analysis and evaluation; however, if students do not know how to analyze and evaluate in discussion, response to this question is unlikely to be fruitful.

Students need structures to help them frame discussion in thinking skills. This is where anchor charts of sentence stems for different thinking skills relevant to your class can be valuable. An English teacher might value inference, interpretation, and analysis. A math teacher might value problem solving, justification, and reasoning. Spending time with students developing templates for sentences that reflect these skills is worthwhile. For example, if I want my students to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of an author’s argument, I might provide the stem, “(author) includes (relevant feature), which is effective/ineffective because __________.” If students are surrounded by dozens of such stems categorized by thinking skills on anchor charts in the room, they have the tools to engage in effective discussion.

Use Preparation to Enable Student Independence

Merely providing sentence stems is problematic as they lead to inorganic discussions. A pivotal part of the process is giving students the chance to tailor the stems prior to discussion. Before discussions, providing time for students to work with the stems, making them more specific to the topic of an upcoming discussion, is valuable. Not only will this time help students develop their thinking on the topic, but it will also provide the clunky situation of students trying to work the stems while in discussion.

What are thinking skills vital to your subject area? And what are effective sentence/question stems you could provide for your students on anchor charts?

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