A teaching tactic from antiquity…in the MG classroom, library, homeschool group, summer reading program, or book club? Absolutely! Perhaps you’ve heard of or participated in a Socratic discussion (also called Socratic method, dialogue, seminar, and questioning). It’s been a great way to get learners thinking, listening, and expressing since Socrates encouraged his students to do the same in Ancient Greece!
Socratic discussion allows each group member to contribute ideas and to listen to the ideas of others, while thinking critically about an open-ended topic or question. Even elementary students can become skilled in the techniques of Socratic discussion—and middle graders, with their developing abilities in complex thinking and making connections, are excellent candidates for this activity. In a Socratic discussion on a book, chapter, or reading passage, middle grade readers have the chance to articulate their ideas and serve as active listeners to other readers doing the same.
What are the goals with Socratic discussion in a reading group? Whether you are a librarian, a teacher, a book club guide, a homeschooling parent, or a summer program facilitator, Socratic discussion can fulfill many reading goals for your group of middle graders:
- provide readers with an opportunity for sharing ideas;
- promote critical thinking skills;
- demonstrate how each reader’s takeaway from a book can be different, and to teach acceptance of differing viewpoints;
- allow an outlet for a variety of levels of thinking, listening, and speaking;
- encourage and motivate readers through active learning.
How is a Socratic discussion different from a debate? Open-ended questions guide Socratic discussions—the kinds of questions that do not have defined, simple answers. There is no right/wrong, winner/loser, argument/refutation/rebuttal. Ideally, the ideas flow from all readers, and all readers listen and respond when moved to contribute. Readers can disagree with an idea, and offer a different thought for consideration—but unlike a debate, the objective is not to prove the other “side” wrong—because there is no opponent.
Also, while a debate may focus primarily on one issue, a Socratic discussion welcomes new, connected questions into play—maybe even questions that you (as the discussion guide) hadn’t considered.
Some methods for a successful Socratic discussion:
- Let readers know at least a day in advance that they will be participating in a special activity called Socratic discussion. They may need a quick briefing on the concept, if it is new to them.
- Explain that readers should arrive having read the MG book (or a particular chapter, passage, or part) in advance of the discussion day. (Consequently, Socratic discussions work very well with the “flipped classroom” model.) Each reader should bring his or her copy of the book, for handy reference during the discussion.
- If you have a particularly reserved group, you might let them know the discussion question(s) ahead of time, and encourage each reader to bring 2-3 ideas to the discussion.
- You’ll need chairs in a circle, so that readers can see each other. If the group is so large that two smaller discussion groups are warranted, the waiting group might need an activity while waiting, or they can enjoy extra reading time.
- Create several guiding questions that are open-ended, involve reader reaction, and can be supported or detailed with moments from the reading. Here are some examples of guiding questions for two MG novels I read recently. (Though, as open-ended questions, with a bit of tweaking they might work well for many others too.)
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
- Remember that a character can be dynamic or static. Relationships between characters can be dynamic, too. How are the relationships in The Crossover dynamic? (Extension question—how do dynamic characters in the book cause their relationships to be dynamic as well?)
- How does the format (verse) of this novel impact its storytelling?
- Choose any secondary character and describe him or her with three adjectives, explaining the moments in the book that led you to your choices.
The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz (with awesome medieval-style illuminations by Hatem Aly)
- Whose story is this, ultimately? In other words, if you had to choose, which one (and only one) character is the book mostly about—one of the three children, one of the storytellers, someone else? What events and/or character reactions lead you to feel that way?
- What theme topic (or theme statement) comes out most prevalently in this story? What parts of the book support your choice?
- How did the method of storytelling (multiple first-person retellings, each one acting as an omniscient narrator!) impact your reader experience? What predictions or questions did you have while reading?
6. Just prior to the discussion, briefly review these guidelines with your middle graders before revealing or reviewing the guiding question to discuss:
When a reader would like to contribute an idea, he or she does so—the discussion guide does not have to acknowledge him. (Then, how to tell who has the floor? One way: the speaker simply stands to speak. This allows everyone to focus on him or her, and gives a sense of importance to the ideas being contributed. If two or more readers stand at the same time—what a great problem to have!—establish an easy, impartial rule for speaking first, such as who has the earliest (or latest) birthday date in the calendar year.)
Acknowledge other readers’ ideas, and reference the speaker by name. (Providing readers with some leads to use as models in formulating their verbal contributions allows even shy speakers to confidently contribute an idea, and encourages the forming of good discussion habits: “I agree with what John said about….” “I think another way Emma’s idea shows up in this chapter is….” “I hear what Caitlyn is saying and another way of putting it might be….” “I disagree with Hayden, because I think that character…..”)
7. After these reminders, reveal or review the question for discussion, and invite the ideas: “Who would like to begin?” Your role as a guide can be challenging—because now, you mostly need to keep quiet! Interject a guiding comment if clarity is needed—“Who can restate in your own words the idea Brianna mentioned?”—or to regenerate a hook—“Let’s go back to Sierra’s question about the main character. Any thoughts on that?” However, refrain from offering your own ideas or introducing any new content in the middle of the discussion.
Also, bring a speaker back on track if he or she drifts into lengthy personal storytelling. A quick mention of an individual experience is great to show connections—“That scene reminds me of when I took this long road trip across the state”—but an overly detailed recounting of a family vacation stalls the discussion.
8. Allow the discussion to pick up tangential ideas and new questions, as long as the readers are engaging in critical thinking about the book.
9. Wrap up the discussion when new ideas begin to wane—and before interest in the question or topic fades. Interest gained from the discussion motivates readers into the next chapter or book, which hopefully drives additional interest going into the next discussion.
With a little practice and guidance, middle grade readers can benefit from and enjoy this classical technique!