As a mentor at Williamsburg, I frequently use a tool called Socratic Circles (a.k.a. fishbowl discussions) to build my U.S. History classes to the point where my students are able to lead themselves through deep, meaningful class discussions with only occasional intervention or support from me. As soon as I introduced Socratic Circles to my students, I noticed an immediate change: they started to understand the real value of discussion.

In case this is just Greek to you, let me explain. Socratic Circles serve two purposes:

  1. Engage students with each other and with the course material, without needing the mentor to take the lead
  2. Teach students how to observe learning in action by reflecting on the form and content of Socratic dialogue

How it works

A great discussion starts with a single question and proceeds with just two rules: love your neighbor and seek the truth (in that order). In this kind of discussion, the class is a single unit following and engaging with the question wherever it might lead—the endpoint is unknown, perhaps even to the mentor (it’s better if this is the case). This process engages all of the student’s mind, even their soul.

Socratic Circles provide a framework to help students master the art of great discussions. For context, here’s how Socratic Circles actually play out in my classroom:

  1. Students divide into three groups (A, B and C).
  2. Students in Group A have a ten-minute discussion, while groups B and C observe (from outside the “inner circle”) their form and content, respectively.
  3. When Group A’s discussion is complete, students from Group B share feedback on Group A’s form. What was their non-verbal language? Did they include everyone? Were they respectful of each other’s ideas and comments?
  4. After Group B has shared their feedback, students from Group C share feedback on Group A’s content: Did they stick to the initial discussion question? Did they bring in any reference material? Did they vigorously pursue the truth?
  5. After this debrief time, the groups switch places, and the process repeats with a new question for Group B (with groups A and C sharing feedback), and then again for Group C (with groups A and B sharing feedback).

The results

By the end of this process, students have all participated in a live discussion (with others observing them) and have constructively commented on two other discussions from two different perspectives. After a couple of practice rounds, students know how to discuss without a mentor involved and are ready to continue the learning journey on their own.

Overall, my students are loving their fishbowl discussions. Alethea says, “My favorite thing about the course so far has been the simulation or the Socratic circles that we have done. They are a really fun and engaging way to learn.” Jared says, “I feel that you have really hit on something using the fishbowl discussion to get more people involved.” And Joey concludes, “I really enjoy the in-class discussions on the readings. They are always really interesting, and they bring to light new ways of looking at something.”

These are tenth-graders studying U.S. history. Having used Socratic Circles to look deeply at the course material, they not only know the issues and the dates—they know how history applies to their lives. And, as you might learn in the video below, they are coming up with ideas, on their own, that are at times far beyond anything I could ever tell them.

—Jason Poarch, U.S. History Mentor