I have been to several different AVID trainings in the past year. Many of the skills that I learned have been great additions to my chemistry classroom. The use of interactive journals has greatly decreased the time that I spend grading student work and has encouraged students to be more organized and teaching students how to close read an article has been a lifesaver! Though the use of Socratic Seminars always sounded great, I was never quite sure how to incorporate them in my Chemistry classroom. And to be quite honest, I was afraid to try something new. However, after findings some great texts about ionic and covalent bonds I was given the inspiration to incorporate a Socratic Seminar with close reading and a lab.
What is a Socratic Seminar?
According to Mangrum (2010), “Socratic seminars are structured conversations about selected texts and the important ideas imbedded within them” (p. 41). These are student centered conversations where students start a discussion about either an idea or a question and usually have texts that they can cite within the conversation. The conversation is very structured. Students can respond to someone else’s point or idea by saying “I agree with the point that you made (restate the point), and I would like to add… ” or they can say “I disagree with the statement that you made (restate the point) because… “. This structured conversation requires students to be careful listeners because they want to make sure that they always restate what they are responding to. During this conversation students are also expected to cite textual evidence. They can directly quote a piece of text, including the author’s name and the title (possible even the paragraph number if all students have the same text), or they can summarize part of a text, again, make sure that they include the author’s name and title of the article. The biggest part of a socratic seminar is that this is a STUDENT conversation. What does that mean? The teacher only starts the conversation with a questions or statement and the students keep the conversation going for a given amount of time with out teacher’s input. You may assign a moderator for the discussion. The job of this student is to keep the students on track, ask questions that get the students discussing important points, and to make sure that one person doesn’t dominate the conversation (we all have those students who love to hear themselves talk!).
Benefits of Socratic Seminars:
According to Chowning (2009), “In these kinds of discussions, students can apply their understanding of science content, practice articulating a position, and collectively build a deeper understanding of a complex topic” (p.36).
- Creates authentic learning environment: Authentic learning environment occurs when students are involved in real-world problems. In the real-world, scientist are not given instructions on how to perform a certain lab, often they rely on scientific journals and discussions with others in order to come up with a lab procedures that might work. In this activity students do just that. Using scholarly sources students devise their own lab procedures through structured communication and collaboration.
- Improved scientific literacy: According to Reiners and Schumacher, “the capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made through human activity” (p. 2174). Scientific literacy is a big part of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). They stress the impotence of students being able to read complex texts, draw conclusions, and make opinions. Using Socratic seminar model allows students the opportunity to practice this important skills.
- Encourages students to articulate their understandings: Often, students have a hard time taking what they read and putting it into their own worlds. This can be even more difficult with a scientific text because often times it involves many different ideas that are new and foreign that students have no previous knowledge or connection to. The use of Socratic seminar encourages students to try to put these ideas in their own worlds. During the discussion students are encouraged to put forth new ideas and question the texts. These skills allow students to fully grasp a text or topics being discussed and provides them multiple view points to draw from.
- Stimulates students questioning: One of the most powerful tools students can learn is how to ask the right question. My favorite (or not so much) is the student who is lost and asks me to explain a concept. My first response to them is to come up with a question. What are they exactly stuck on? If they are working through a word problem, are they have trouble understanding the problem? Picking out their known variables? Plugging the numbers into an equation or maybe choosing the right equation? During a socratic seminar students are encouraged to ask questions in order to improve their understanding of the material. If they are uncertain about what another student said or possible unsure about how to interpret a section of the text students need to put forth their question to the group so that it can be discussed and addressed.
- Allow students a more in-depth understanding of the content: All students come to the discussion with a different perspective on the material. The relationship that one student might have to the material will no doubt be different than what the person next to them thinks. Even though they might be right, their own life experiences create different connections. By sharing these connections with a group students get multiple ways of looking at one problem or idea. The more connections that a student makes to the material the more likely they will understand it on a deeper and more meaningful level.
- Encourages students to use their resources and each other: I have found that often times students fail to use their resources they have on hand because they feel that if they don’t know something it is easy to ask the teacher to get their answer. However, it is important to move students away from this thinking. A teacher will not be there to answer their questions when they are working on homework or trying to study and a teacher won’t be there when they are trying to learn something new for a difficult class or a job. What will always be there are important skills such as using their available resources, reaching out to peers, and continuing to struggle with the material until they get it. During a Socratic seminar a teacher is just an observer, students are required to rely on each other as a resources.
Students were first introduced to the idea of a Socratic seminar. About half of the class had done a Socratic seminar in History or English, which was extremely beneficial to the overall process. I explained that we would be doing the socratic seminar Fishbowl style (see diagram 1). Students on the inside of the fishbowl would be having the discussion while students on the outside would be observing and filling out the observation rubric (I used the first page of this PDF). I explained that students needed to participate in the discussion are least four different times. At least one time needed to involve citing a source from the text and one needed to be a question.
diagram 1: Fishbowl Seating Arrangement
I had three articles that I got from Adventures in ISTEM on TPT. This reading came with three articles, Cornell notes, and a worksheet for each handout. The articles were assigned in class. Students were given the period (90 minutes) to read the articles, discuss with their group, and complete the Cornell notes (I didn’t assign the worksheets). I made sure that students knew that these were their ONLY notes that they were going to able to use for the Socratic seminar. I told them that they needed to read them carefully, make notes, ask questions, and be prepared to discuss them the following day.
The following day students came in with their articles annotated. I explained that the goal of this discussion was to discuss what an ionic and covalent bond were and how you would test a substance would contain ionic or covalent bonds. Students needed to come up with a lab procedure that they agreed upon, and the following day they would be presented with 10 different unknown samples that they had to identify as being ionic or covalent (the article does discuss properties of each). The first group of students were on the inside of the fishbowl and they discussed covalent bonds while the other half of the students were on the outside of the fishbowl and were assigned one person to observe. After about 10-15 minutes the groups switched position and they discussed ionic bonds. By the end of the period students had a good understanding about the difference between ionic and covalent bonds and they had a list of supplies and procedures for the lab the follow day.
For the last portion of the period students were required to write out their procedures and create a data table for the following day.
The needed supplies were set out along with 10 unknown compounds. Students tested their compounds and identified whether they were ionic or covalent based off their findings.
Students were broken up into two different groups. Group one was assigned unknown #1-5 while group two was assigned #6-10. The students set up in the fishbowl style Socratic seminar again. They were given the same rubric that was used during the previous discussion. I explained that students needed to compare their data for their assigned unknowns and come to consensus about whether they were ionic or covalent. If there was a discrepancy they needed to discuss what errors could have occurred. Once they had an agreement I gave them the actual bond present in the unknown and the group then discussed what led them to the right answer or why they might have the wrong answer. The groups switched and the students continued to discuss the second half of the unknowns.
After the discussion students wrote a one-page conclusion about their findings of the lab. They also wrote about if they liked the Socratic seminar and if they felt it was helpful. Students turned in each rubric of the Socratic seminar, their data table, and their conclusion.
- Students discussion were a lot more productive than I imagined they would be: I don’t want to say that underestimated my students, but I did! Their discussions were much better than I imagined. Students were able to come up with the procedures all on their own. They identified melting point, solubility, and conductivity as three ways to test ionic and covalent compounds. Their analysis of their errors was more thorough than any lab write-up. Students had a great discussion about how some compounds might be covalent according to two tests but one test pointed in the direction of being ionic. Overall, I was very impressed!
- Some of the quiet students participated: Some of my quiet students really did a great job in participating. I think the structure of the conversation, knowing how to respond, and having a text to cite made it easier for them to participate.
- While… Some students did not participate at all: I had about one or two students in each class who still didn’t participate at all. The students who didn’t participate were some of my older students (juniors or seniors in a class of predominately sophomores). These are also the students who usually feel that everything that we do in class is unnecessary and below them.
- The majority of students enjoyed it and really took responsibility for their learning: Students really took ownership for learning, more than I had seen in previous activities within the class. In the end, about 90% of the students said that they would want to do it again and they felt like they had a deeper level of understanding about ionic and covalent bonds.
- Required little prep time on my part: After finding the required resources online, this was very minimal effort on my part. I found the articles on TPT (link above) and the rubric online (link above). After they decided on the procedures I put out many of the materials for the following day. Other than some simple instructions, this was an entirely student-centered and student led lesson.
Chowning, J.T. (2009). Socratic seminars in science class. Science Teacher. 76(8). 36-41.
Mangrum, J.R. (2011). Sharing practice through socratic seminars. The Phi Delta Kappan. 91(7). 40-43.
Reiners, C. & Schumacher, A. (2013). Designing authentic learning environments in chemistry lessons: paving the way in pre-service teachers education. Science & Education. 22(9). 2173-2191.