As we all know, students like to talk. How to harness the verbal enthusiasm and make it work for learning is the challenge at hand. Socratic Seminars, Talking Circles and Harkness Tables are structures created to facilitate student discourse in learning. This lesson takes bits and pieces of these different structures to formulate a method called Scientists of the Round Table for conducting student-led, engaging and effective discussions on any science topic.
Structured discussions like the Scientists of the Round Table protocol present a high rigor opportunity for students to practice asking questions (SEP1); construct explanations (SEP6); engage in argument from evidence (SEP7); and obtain, evaluate and communicate information (SEP8). Additionally, students practice several Common Core English Language Arts Standards, most notably, students engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions and write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.
In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson and EXPLORE the topic so that they can start to build their own understanding, it is important to build enthusiasm about having a structured discussion. By using Scientists of the Round Table Presentation, students are introduced to Socrates, learn a little about his ideas as the first "master teacher" and start to think about the how discussion can be a powerful tool for learning.
A second engagement strategy is to choose a “meaty” topic with a text or texts. For science, the topic should be high interest, related to the current topic of study and have an element of problem solving or critical thinking. Texts can be anything from a poster to a video or article. "Reading" the text can occur as homework prior to the discussion or during class time students need support accessing the text.
As an example, when exploring the physics of water slides, students choose from three high interest articles leveled by reading level:
To further meet student challenges when accessing text, students have the opportunity to read alone or partner read.
For further engagement, students are excellent generators of great and relevant topics for discussion. Giving students an essential question and asking them to research discussion ideas is a great teacher trick for hooking students into the discussion.
The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. To help students explain what they understand about the topic, I assign an entry ticket for every discussion we have: Scientists of the Round Table Entry Ticket. An entry ticket is documentation proving they are prepared for the discussion. Entry tickets might include responding to a prompt, reading a text and taking notes or watching a video and making a note card of the facts presented. For students who may have difficulty speaking up, the entry ticket acts as a "safety net" - serving as a script during discussion. Entry tickets can also serve as a quick formative assessment of students' ability to read and comprehend technical texts.
Students who do not have their entry ticket may not participate directly in the seminar. They may listen and take notes or do an alternate activity. The reasoning here relates to the crosscutting concept of Structure and Function. For the discussion to be functional (authentic, effective and engaging), the structure (preparedness, norms and participation) must be intact. After realizing how fun these discussions are, students don't want to be left out and improve on entry ticket completion. This Scientists of the Round Table Student Entry Ticket Example shows how a thoughtful and comprehensible entry ticket can help students be prepared for the discussion.
The EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. The novel situation in this case is the discussion itself. For specific instructions on how to structure the discussion, refer to the Scientists of the Round Table Teacher Overview. This resource gives step-by-step instructions on how to start and end the discussion with all of the fun in between.
This overview can serve as a starting point for finding new creative ways to structure the discussion that promotes different speaking and listening intentions. For example, it is possible to set up the discussion with an inner and outer circle. The inner circle discusses a problem while the outer circle takes notes. This practice is highly effective for student accountability for listening with a specific intention. For examples of student listening notes, check here Scientists of the Round Table Student Listening Notes Examples. To further assess for active listening, students report what they heard to the group that was having the discussion.
Within these teacher overview, you will see references to mapping the discussion and grading the discussion. Additional resources are available here to further clarify mapping and grading. Discussion of grading can be found in the next section.
The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. We evaluate the discussion in several ways:
1) Debriefing the seminar is especially important early on in the process of teaching students the discussion protocol. I debrief by asking for feedback about what students learned, what worked well during the discussion, any challenges they faced and possible goals for the next discussion.
2) An exit ticket is another strategy that provides insight into what students have learned. I like to include a prompt related to the science learning as well as a prompt about the discussion. The Scientists of the Round Table Student Exit Ticket Example illustrates a completed entry ticket.
3) By taking notes or completing the Scientists of the Round Table Rubric during the discussion, I can evaluate group and individual participation, understanding and misconceptions. This record lets me refer back to student ideas in future discussion or investigation. I include student names in my notes, so that I can refer back to their ideas as a way to model effective discussion technique. By recording names, it is also possible to design interventions for students who need additional instruction. If there are group misconceptions, I am sure to include these as teaching points in upcoming lessons.
4) Conferencing with individual students about their performance and understanding is
a powerful way to use the information gathered during the evaluation stage. Also, if groups of students form that have specific opinions or understandings, I use those groups as a natural differentiation tool in future lessons.