Outer Circle Ideas for Socratic Seminar

Many facilitators have discovered that the ideal number of students for seminar is generally 13-18. Fewer than this range, and there are often not enough opinions and ideas; more than this and students begin to lose precious speaking time. All things being equal, I personally find that about 16 participants is an ideal number, with 22 being the high-end range where I probably wouldn’t change any of my seminar procedures.

With fairly large groups in the 23-27 range, I prefer to select up to five students to participate outside of the dialogue as “sociologists.” These students collect data on the process itself, creating dialogue maps, noting participation styles, making notes, tallying logical fallacies, and anything else that may help set individual and group goals. Rotate these students so that everyone has a turn as observers. Consider using "hot seats" and/or talking chips as ways to have outer circle students flow into the dialogue.

For even larger groups, the most common solution is to create two concentric circles, an inner and an outer circle, where only the inner circle participants dialogue about the text, while the outer circle observes the process. After a set amount of time, the two groups switch places. This does mean that students have half the speaking time, though everyone will still benefit from listening to both dialogues.

In all cases, the main tasks for outer circle participants are to actively listen, make notes, and then reflect on the process in order to improve the quality of the conversation. The outer students act as process coaches by sharing their observations, mapping the conversation and providing insights into what is working for the inner group and what isn’t.

An amazing tool for collecting and tracking data in the outer circle is the Equity Maps app.

Sample Outer Circle Job Ideas:

  • Paraphraser = paraphrases when called upon
  • Summarizer = summarizes when called upon
  • Tally Makers = tally various data: # of questions asked, students who spoke, # of interruptions, # of “pleases” and “thank yous,” etc.
  • Idea keepers = listen carefully to make sure ideas get followed far enough
  • Process Coaches = reflect on how the conversation went
  • Goal Setter = think about and make goals for the group: “I think we need to cite the text more.”
  • Encourager = helps students who are trying to speak
  • Assessor  = fills out rubric or other assessment for the group
  • Follow-up Questioner = follows up when it seems an idea wasn't pursued

Sample Outer Circle Questions and Tasks:

1. What comment or question seemed to the most significant? 

2. How many times did people refer to the text to justify what they were saying?

3. Who helped the inner circle most by participating? By asking good questions? By leading? By inviting others?

4. If you could make up one more question for the inner circle to answer, what would it be?

5. Record how many times people interrupted each other. How do the interrupted people react?

6. How many periods of silence were there? Were they productive?

7. What are the speakers doing well? What could be improved?

8. Record how many times the boys speak and how many the girls speak. 

9. Observe the nonverbal communication of the people in the circle. Record what you see.

10. What important ideas or issues did the group ignore? 

11. What scene, passage, or line from the text could this group have brought up in order to enhance their discussion?

12. What point would you have liked to add to the discussion? Why?

13. On a scale of 1 to 10, how well did the inner circle group do?

Image by Gerd Altmann - Pixabay


learning, Socratic Seminar, teaching

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