Rewiring Student Brains for Class Discussions
Many teachers are intrigued by the Socratic method but worry “it won’t work with my students.” A Socratic seminar calls on ALL the big executive skills. Patricia Cook and Susanne Croasdaile found that we don’t need to wait until they’re all “ready” – just dive in!
By Patricia Cook and Susanne Croasdaile
Many of us are reluctant to include Socratic Seminar as a classroom activity because students must use all the difficult executive skills: self-regulation, forward planning, interacting with others appropriately, emotional control. It’s a lot for a seventh grader.
We’re here to say, “Just Do It!” The secret is to teach Socratic Seminar as a routine that helps your students’ brains get better at this important activity – instead of the teacher waiting for the day students might be ready.
A quick note about UDL
Before we roll into the “how” of teaching Socratic Seminar as a routine, we’ll frame this conversation by sharing how we see the world. We use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a lens for seeing teaching and learning, so every decision is colored by that lens.
The UDL framework is based on neuroscience (brain research) and reminds us that our brain is ever changing. When we make connections and practice tasks, our brains physically rewire themselves and connect neurons (Meyer et al., 2014; Rappolt-Schlichtmann et al., 2012). Those tasks become more automatic, fluent, “easier.” When we don’t make connections and don’t practice tasks, our brains “prune” those neural connections and they literally no longer exist.
When we say a student can’t do something, it often means they don’t currently have a neural pathway that makes that task fluent. In some cases, students might have been able to do it earlier but are “rusty” and have lost fluency with the skill. In other cases, they never mastered it.
This is a lesson to us: if we don’t keep (or start) middle schoolers practicing desired behaviors like group discussion and listening, they will actually lose all of those related prosocial neural connections they developed throughout their early years.
So, “Just Do It!” But how? The answer lies in strategy instruction.
Use routines and strategy instruction to rewire
Most of us are familiar with explicit instruction and gradual release of responsibility (I do, we do, y’all do, you do), but strategy instruction goes one step further.
When we plan strategy instruction, we use a calendar and scaffolds to make sure that students practice doing a task enough that they master it and become independent. Strategy instruction relies on the power of routines, which rewire the neurons in our brains.
Even though we don’t realize it, we all rely heavily on routines to get through the day as effective adults. We’ve become automatic and fluent at certain things, which lets us subconsciously “do stuff.” This reduces our cognitive load and lets our minds think more deeply about whatever challenge is in front of us (Lemov, 2021).
When we teach routines, we’re scaffolding students in focusing their attention, being aware, and reflecting (Berger et al., 2015; Lemov, 2021; Fisher & Frey, 2011, 2021). Practice with routines changes the connections between neurons; new pathways are formed and less-useful behavior connections are broken (Meyer et al., 2014; Rappolt-Schlichtmann et al., 2012).
As teachers, we need to establish routines for our students that reduce the cognitive load of engaging in structured academic discussion like Socratic Seminar.
Making question writing part of a Socratic Seminar routine lets students free up the mental space they need for self-regulation, interacting with others appropriately, and emotional control.
We know that this sounds like a lot. Maybe so much that you’re thinking, “I’ll try this next year…” But what we really want you to know is that the right time to start Socratic Seminar is now – whenever “now” is.
Don’t wait – just do it. You can.
One of us started teaching Socratic Seminar in the classroom when we were strongly encouraged by a mentor to “give it a whirl and see what happens.” We had been jealous of what the gifted and honors students were doing – all of these fun things – and thought, “I don’t think my students in the inclusive classroom can do that; I wish they could.” But we decided to just do it.
Together, we spent about two or three days getting ready for the first one. We front-loaded so we would try to hit every obstacle and prevent it. Socratic Seminar is a routine. If you don’t teach it as a routine and spend the time on it, there will be obstacles.
But it wasn’t a difficult routine to teach. It’s embarrassing now to think that we were holding them back from participating in Socratic Seminar like the honors classes were already doing. Our students stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the ballpark! They had a great time, and they wanted to do more.
The Socratic Seminar strategy
Fear of the unknown is a real thing with Socratic Seminar; not just for the teachers, but also for the students. So teach it as a routine. Start small. Take just one page of an interesting and meaningful text and have the students read it and annotate and write questions. We have started classes with Socratic Seminar using interesting texts as diverse as:
- a single excerpt from Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together;
- an opinion piece on whether we should eat chicken nuggets if we know how they’re made;
- an excerpt from the 2012 Spiderman movie screenplay, and
- a mixed fiction and nonfiction text set about Japanese internment camps.
Regardless of the content, here are the strategy steps our students practice:
- Read and annotate your text.
- Write multiple open-ended questions during the previous class.
- Ask at least one of your questions during the discussion.
- Listen to others during the discussion.
- Use Accountable Talk stems and the text to respond to others’ questions.
- Reflect and set goals based on how we did immediately after the discussion.
- Repeat and improve!
|Video: Scaffolding Discussion Skills With a Socratic Circle
The more students practice getting comfortable with wait time to think about a question, listening to the responses of others, and using sentence stems to build on their peers’ responses or respond with different perspectives, then the more participation in academic discussion will become automatic and the cognitive load will be reduced (Meyer et al., 2014). That’s what it looks like for neural pathways to develop.
It’s not all neuroscience; there are inspiring moments, too. One of Tricia’s seventh-graders created a sweet moment in their inclusive classroom. He spoke up in the circle to invite one of the students who didn’t like to speak to share in the seminar. At first, she was taken aback and didn’t want to say anything…but after he encouraged her, she felt comfortable speaking up and thinking out loud. It was a memorable day.
Anticipate some awkwardness
It sounds like it was perfect to begin with…and it was not. We had to give them conversation cues. We had to teach them about open-ended questions and how to write open-ended questions to get deeper into a topic. We had to teach them how to interact with one another, how to pause and listen, and go back to the conversation cues.
Socratic Seminar is very awkward at first, because students want the teacher to lead everything. Try looking at your clipboard and recording participation to help prevent you from jumping into the silence. There will be times that you do have to jump in; however students will recognize that you did in their reflections. They will be excited to remedy it in the next one. Each time they will feel like they own the discussion more and participate better.
We were the ones holding them back!
We were wrong when we thought Socratic Seminar was too challenging for our students. What we found out was that we were the ones holding our students back. It was a hard reckoning to realize we were blocking them from this opportunity because we didn’t think they could do it.
The key was teaching Socratic Seminar as a strategy instead of planning a “one and done.” Because their neural pathways develop or disconnect based on exposure, our students got better at the discussion as they practiced the routine – with their annotation and the accountable talk scaffolds – and reflected on each discussion. We had to give them the opportunity to practice enough to improve.
You might, during the year, want to plan 3-4 discussions in 6th grade, 5-6 discussions in 7th grade, and 7-8 discussions in 8th grade so students can see their skills improve over time.
Part of why we hold off on trying things like Socratic Seminar is that we’re insular. We think, “This is what I do. This is how my students are.”
We don’t talk enough with one another to say, “Hey, you know what? Just do it. You’ve got this. How can I help?” We’re here to take that role for you. That’s how we started. Follow the scaffolded steps here and we know it will work for you, too.
Do’s and Don’ts
✅ Have all students annotate their paper copies of text(s) ahead of time.
✅ Have students write open-ended questions during the previous class.
✅ Walk around and give feedback on questions, then approve their final questions before class ends so they are mentally and physically prepared for the discussion next class.
✅ Offer a written alternative but require students to stay within the circle and listen to others.
✅ Scaffold each step, even if it takes more time! It’s worth it.
❎ Don’t skip the preparation day where students write their open-ended questions.
❎ Don’t have an outside circle. Save fishbowl for teaching criticism skills—and develop a respectful, safe classroom community before introducing fishbowl.
❎ Don’t use computers as the text source during the discussion. It distracts students and wires their neurons to focus on the screen instead of peer responses and the text. Paper will do.
❎ Don’t skip the reflection or leave it for the next class period. The reflection is where the students’ neurons rewire.
❎ Don’t wait too long. Just do it – your students will surprise and energize you!
Patricia Cook, M.Ed., started her career as a special education teacher in Virginia. She is currently a classroom ELA teacher, department chair, and instructional coach at Matoaca Middle School in Chesterfield, VA. The success of her students and colleagues is what continues to inspire her to keep learning. She is one of the four contributors to Building Executive Function and Motivation in the Middle Grades: A Universal Design for Learning Approach (CAST, July 2023).
Susanne Croasdaile, Ph.D., worked with Tricia Cook and her team on Building Executive Function and Motivation in the Middle Grades: A Universal Design for Learning Approach (CAST, July 2023). She has been a classroom teacher, instructional coach, professional developer, program specialist, systems change consultant, and associate director of curriculum and instruction for public schools in Virginia and Louisiana.
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Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2011). Engaging the adolescent learner: The first 20 days establishing productive group work in the classroom. International Reading Association.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2021). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility, 3rd ed. ASCD.
Lemov, D. (2021). Teach like a champion 3.0: 63 techniques that put students on the path to college, 3rd ed. Jossey-Bass.
Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Gordon. D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST.
Rappolt-Schlichtmann, G., Daley, S., & Rose. L. (Eds). (2012). A research reader in universal design for learning. Harvard Education Press.