Socratic Circles in Science

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SWBAT observe an animal and discuss their initial ideas about which traits the animal has inherited and what they can see or observe that is a response to its environment.

Big Idea

Scientific dialogue is based in the ability to have open-ended, meaningful discussions with a peer group.

How to Use Socratic Seminars, "Socratic Circles"

If your students are new to Socratic Circles, this might be a fun way (I hope) to engage them.  Here are Socratic Seminar Rules.

At the start of this lesson, I have students watch this video and ask them what they notice about how the children are taking turns and joining on in the conversation.


What do your students think some of the procedures for a Socratic Circle might be?  If needed, guide them towards the following ideas:

  • The teacher is not talking.
  • Students jump into the conversation.
  • They address one another by name and build on each others answers.
  • They attempt to talk only one at a time.  (This is a work in progress).
  • They are sitting in a circle so that they can all hear and see the person speaking.

Here are some resources that will give you some background in how to facilitate a Socratic Seminar if this is not a process with which you are familiar.  I modify much of the structure and in some cases the students are discussing a question without having been exposed to text first.  I do this because I find this to be such a powerful structure for developing and encouraging students' ability to talk with one another and within a group setting.  The ability to converse and debate with civility and attention to the thoughts of others is a profoundly important skill and in my opinion, Socratic Circles are the best way to build this capacity in young students.


Expectations for a Socratic Circle

5 minutes

My students learned how to conduct (modified) Socratic Seminars with their 2nd grade teachers so I didn't have to do the initial instruction, but I review the expectations for this unique kind of discussion in the lesson Socratic Seminars - Smaller Groups.   

I have students sit on the carpet in a circle.  Nobody is allowed to remain on their chair or sit on the edge.  I remind them of the following:

  • if you want to speak, jump in.  handraising is unnecessary.
  • do your very best not to cut off another speaker.
  • keep your answers relatively short out of respect for the fact that everyone should have a chance to talk
  • if you see someone who hasn't yet spoken, you can invite them to share their thoughts
  • if speakers are getting off-topic, you can redirect them to the main question
  • if you disagree with someone, that is okay, but do it respectfully
  • use terms that refer back to the group such as, "can I add on?  like (name) said, ____"
  • put the sentence stem of the question in your answer when it's appropriate and when you are able
  • keep an open mind

I also let them know that my goal is to speak as little as possible.  As this is still relatively new to them, I may occasionally redirect or, more likely, step in if there is someone who isn't getting a chance to speak.  Other than that, they are on their own!

Introduce the Topic: Meet the Lizard!

10 minutes

Prior to introducing students to our mystery guest, who I tell them is waiting in the office attached to our classroom, we have a 3 minute discussion about what they think they have inherited from their parents.  We discuss the difference between inheriting hair color, eye color, the way we smile, the shape of our ear and the fact that all humans share basic characteristics:  arms, legs, hair, nose, 2 eyes, and so on.  This is something that they will struggle with throughout our studies of heritability and an animal's response to the environment.  

For example, you'll hear them saying that the horned lizard got its skinny legs from its parents so it can run fast.  All horned lizards have skinny little legs.  It's complex, and wonderful!  The most important thing I can do is not step in too quickly.  I will guide them, but first I need to listen and see what they can work out on their own.  It's a great way to figure out what their background knowledge is and what misconceptions they are carrying around with them.  This makes my instruction much more effective because I'm tailoring what I do to exactly what they are saying!

Then I bring out our guest, which in this case was a horned lizard that students fortuitously pointed out to me on the playground before school started.  In other instances, I have used insects, tiny snakes, toads, or photographs.

Once the students are seated and still and I've ensure that the lizard will be safe, I call them over in groups to observe it.  During the Socratic Circle I was able to project a video feed of the little lizard on to our pseudo-whiteboard; that is why the lights are off in the room.

Socratic Circle Discussion

45 minutes

This is the question I post for the students: 

When you observe this lizard, what do you see that you think is an inherited trait and what do you see that you think is something it is doing in response to the environment?

This student expresses her idea that the lizard inherited its tail from its parents in a complete sentence.  Notice that the child at the end who jumps in on his own with, "Can I add on to that?" In the next lesson, I will circle back around to a discussion and mini-lesson on the difference between characteristics shared by all members of a group (all horned lizards have tails) to heritable traits, such as a variation in the tail length or slight irregularities in the size of the stripes.


The students somehow quickly went down a path of talking about camouflage with a focus on where it would work and where it would not work.  On top of that, many were still making additional asides, such as observations about its general appearance without making a connection to environment or inherited traits.  I really think this is okay, in this initial conversation.  Just listen to the quality of their questions and observations:



Although this part of the conversation wasl very interesting, they were not connecting their questions about camouflage back to the idea of inherited traits versus response to environment. So I asked them this:

Then later they went down another side trail, and started discussing how to describe the lizard's legs, and the purpose of the lizard's legs.  On an unrelated topic, notice that only the boys in my room are jumping in freely.  I plan to split the class into two circles next time, with the quieter children in a separate group so that they learn how to position themselves to enter into the verbal fray.  It's an important skill, and they have a lot to say. It's my job to teach them that it's okay to jump into the conversation.  In this context, that is NOT disrespectful!