The Shift from Teacher to Facilitator

The Shift of Power

In the beginning of the Socratic Classroom journey, students will seek endorsements from you as the authority figure, especially when they are unsure about themselves and what they have to say. They will speak and then make eye contact with you, the authority figure, in order to find out if they are “right” or “on track.” A main shift from teacher to facilitator, then, has a lot to do with helping students become more discerning and confident. 


If you endorse what the students have to say with praise such as “nice job” or body language like a nod or a smile, you will maintain your teacher power and authority role. Even a raised eyebrow can be enough to give the recognition or endorsement the student is seeking. And not just for that student. The rest of the class will view you as the teacher-gatekeeper. If an idea or question has merit, then you may nod, smile and/or say something like, “Great idea!” If it doesn’t have merit, then you may shake your head, frown, and/or say something like, “Hmmm… where’d you get that idea?” 


Even positive comments like “good question” or “that’s an excellent insight” still set you up as the judge of ideas and values. Instead of thinking for themselves and deciding what is “good,” the students will rely on you to do the work. They won’t have to be critical about the evidence or the quality of questions that are asked—or really any part of the conversation. In short, the students won’t have to think because you, as the teacher, will let them know what is “good.” 


If you are interested in having students decide what ideas have merit, what questions are worth pursuing, when there are enough facts and reasons to support a viewpoint, then you must shift to the more neutral role of facilitator. By staying poker-faced and seemingly disinterested by not endorsing ideas and handing out praise, you force the students to turn their attention to the group and the ideas themselves. Thus begins the shift of teacher authority from you to the group, from the “certainty” of you to the “uncertainty” of the group. The students will have to test the waters and seek clarification from their peers. They’ll have to determine for themselves what’s valuable and important instead of just turning to you for the endorsed “answer.” In short, they will have to make meaning for themselves because you are now facilitating that thinking process.


What about students who need praise and encouragement? What about those students who obviously took risks? How do you give them the recognition and encouragement they might need? I suggest doing it outside the containment and sanctity of Socratic Seminar. Do not say much if anything to students during a seminar. When students need some praise or encouragement, speak to them after class, before or after lunch, right after school, or any other time you can have a private word with them. Consider even writing them a letter or sending them an email or a blog message. This way they get the encouragement or direction they need without direct association to the seminar thinking process. 

In addition:

  • Make sure to ask powerful questions that do not have an agenda attached to them.
  • Consider accelerating the shift by only asking questions.
  • Be open to new ideas, and teach students to be willing to change their minds.
  • Consider the importance of silence and don't feel obliged to fill that space.
  • Be careful in asking follow-up questions that may indicate your personal preference in the conversation.
  • Replace speaking a lot with the joy of practicing active listening.
  • Thoroughly prepare texts for Socratic Seminar in the pre-seminar so students can have a lot to say.
  • Pay close attention to the Stages of Group Development.
  • Read more about the Unforeseen Benefit of this shift.

Image by Gerd Altmann - Pixabay


facilitator, learning, Socratic Seminar, teaching

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