discussion circle

by Suzanne Groth

A few years ago, I attended a reading workshop by Michael Cholbi, Professor of Philosophy at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His talk promised “empirical evidence for why students often simply don’t do the [assigned] reading and what can be done about it”—wouldn’t all teachers like to know! What he shared didn’t surprise me: students don’t come to class prepared to discuss readings if they are not responsible for filling class time with their own analysis of the material.  

Like me, perhaps other ESOL teachers feel tasked to develop discussion questions and illustrative PowerPoints in an effort to guide students through difficult texts. However, we often do so for an audience that can only passively digest the material not interact with it, apply it, or question it because the students are encountering the text for the first time. Cholbi suggests educators pass much of this responsibility, the responsibility of preparing for class discussions, along to students. While Cholbi’s talk was mainly directed towards social science and humanities professors, I think his advice is very applicable to ESOL teachers of high intermediate and advanced learners–we should first challenge our students to interpret texts on their own before we do it for them.

This brings me to a particularly successful activity I’ve been using in my advanced ESL communication and seminar courses that I’d like to share, the Socratic Circle.  In the Socratic Circle, all students are responsible for shaping the discussion and all students must negotiate taking turns to ask and answer questions, skills many ESL students struggle with once they matriculate into the American higher education setting. There are many variations of this activity, such as the Socratic Seminar and Socratic questioning, but I’ve been modifying the Socratic Circle discussion format popularized in middle and high school settings. (See Copeland, 2005.)

Here’s the gist of the 60-minute activity:

For homework, students read/watch a text and create their own questions based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. I usually provide students with a handout that provides question prompts for each category on Bloom’s continuum from lower-order thinking to higher-order thinking.  At the start of class, students are divided into two groups: an inner circle and an outer circle.  The first time we do the activity, I outline some general rules which we revisit and sometimes revise throughout the term. Some examples of rules are:

  • Only one student can speak at a time
  • You must raise your hand and be called on to speak
  • You must ask and answer some number of questions
  • You must support your answers with specific content from the text
  • You must not dominate the discussion.  

Then students in the inner circle engage in a structured discussion, beginning with the simple and concrete questions, like “Describe what happened when _____,” and moving towards the other end of the continuum to questions like “Discuss the pros and cons of _____,” “What would happen if _____.”   The outer circle silently observes the inner circle’s performance and takes notes about main points. After the inner circle finishes their discussion (usually within some designated time limit), the outer circle gives the inner circle feedback on their discussion performance and summarizes their discussion.  One student is then assigned to type up the summary of the inner circle’s discussion. Then the circles switch roles. For smaller classes (under 12 or so), I modify the discussion so that there is just one circle for discussion and one student note-taker.

As the teacher, I am generally an observer—I take notes and grade students based on their preparedness, their participation in the discussion, the quality of their questions and their responses, how well their classmates understood them, and how well they were able to ask for clarification. It’s also an opportunity for me to learn what students did or did not understand about the material and identify recurrent language errors which can inform future lesson planning.  When misunderstandings about the text emerge in the discussion, students work together to clarify for one another. I only occasionally need to step in.

I initially worried that students might focus on the surface and not the deeper meanings, but this wasn’t the case. Instead, students surprised me with interpretations I hadn’t thought of or hadn’t thought significant. Those students who could be apprehensive to speak found their voice. Those who had a tendency to dominate discussions had to make room for others. Most importantly, the majority of the class was prepared for a meaningful discussion and ready with questions they were excited to ask their peers.

This is one activity that’s worked for me in ensuring class preparation for discussions. What discussion activities have you found successful in your classes?

Suzanne Groth has taught in the Academic English Studies program since 2010.