About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of implementing Common Core standards is that they are about learning goals, not methods.  This opens up lots of possibilities for including the standards in assessments across the curriculum.  The standards currently include core skills and knowledge in Reading, Writing, and Math.   However, the idea is not to limit those standards to those particular subjects, but rather have them become a natural part of all subjects.  Social Studies, Humanities, the Arts, Music, Science, and Physical Education are among the many important areas of education that might easily been mistaken as areas not associated with Common Core.  On the contrary, incorporating Common Core across the subject areas is one of the most important ways to use the standards.  A really fun and engaging way to do this is the use of a Socratic Discussion in your classroom as both assessment and method for including Common Core in your curriculum.

There is no reason to give up creative ways of assessing students’ knowledge and skills, along with continuing to challenge them with high-level critical thinking.  Most teachers are familiar with a Socratic Seminar style of teaching, where the teacher interacts with the students through asking questions and maintaining dynamic conversation with students instead of simply lecturing information.  A Socratic discussion follows the same pattern, but with a whole group dynamic.  It allows the teacher to assess the reading practices of the students, their public speaking abilities, their analysis and critical thinking, and their ability to interact within the lesson topic, along with the Common Core standards for research, preparation, and evidence-based argument.

Socrates argued that it is more important to enable students to think for themselves than to merely fill their heads with the right answers.  Divergent thinking is the goal of this method of teaching and assessment.  Socrates developed a form of student inquiry and learning called the dialectic method.  Using this method means choosing to examine ideas logically by using more questions than answers. The goal is to encourage the participants in the discussion to clarify their own ideas, to agree on the meaning of the discussion, and to come to a deeper understanding of the topic.

A Socratic Discussion depends on, enhances, and assesses the following skills:

  • Critical reading of a text
  • Respect for diverse ideas
  • Research and Inquiry
  • Building self esteem & public speaking
  • Problem solving
  • Development of personal ideas, ethics and values
  • Enhancing collaboration and teamwork
  • Self-directed learning

These skills all play into the Common Core standard goals that include being able to “write explanatory analysis of texts,” “provide sufficient evidence to prove claims,” and “research to build and present claims.”  The practice of a Socratic Discussion also allows you, the teacher, to assess these skills in a discussion format where you can observe the students in a more relaxed, conversational mode.

A Socratic Discussion is different than a class debate.  A discussion involves dialogue, which is collaborative, cooperative, and multiple sides work toward a shared understanding.  A debate is competitive and/or oppositional, where two or more sides try to prove each other wrong.  A discussion/dialogue enlarges and possibly changes participants’ point of view, and creates open-minded attitudes and openness to being wrong and to change.  Debate, on the other hand, defends assumptions and allows participants to “dig in”.  This can create close-minded attitudes, a determination to be right, and the assumption that there is always one right answer.  A true assessment of your students’ skills and knowledge does not always require one right answer in the discussion of a topic.

Like any assessment, the key to a Socratic Discussion is preparation.  It is a discussion very firmly planned with time boundaries and based on a text that the students must pre-read and prepare.  Here’s how it works:

1. Pick and carefully read the text(s) you want to use. Texts:

  • should be something that can be pre-read by students
  • should be relevant to the unit of study
  • should include a diversity of perspectives or perspectives not normally encountered in the usual course of the unit

Because the overall goal is understanding, not winning points – it’s a good forum for controversial subjects

2. Prepare some critical thinking, open-ended questions based on the text.  You will open the discussion with an essential question, but you’ll also want some to use when conversation lulls.

3. Setting chairs in a circle is the best format for the discussion.  If you have too many students for one circle, the “fishbowl” method can be used, with concentric circles, where students switch places and participate through discussion and observation

4. Have a way to  put a time-limit the discussion (stopwatch, etc.).  It works best to keep it within a set time so that you can use some of class time to debrief the discussion itself as well as the content learned.

5. Before the discussion, set the stage for the students:

  • Identify goals for the discussion (everyone will have a deeper understanding of the issue)
  • Identify the criteria for the discussion (no personal attacks, should people have to raise hands?, etc)
  • Give students a few minutes to write two questions to ask regarding the text they’ve read (this will be based on their preparation of the text before the discussion)

6. Be prepared to be the facilitator, not the director of the conversation.  You will have to be comfortable with some silence and let the students fill in the blanks for themselves.

7. GO!  Let the students explore how to carry discussions, ask each other questions, and refer to texts. It will be bumpy at first.  There may be a lot of silence time as the students adjust to taking ownership of the material and their own discussion of it.  But allowing that silence to be there will be key to assessing how they deal with the text and will lead to really rich dialogue.  Keep the discussion from going outside the topic, but also give the students room to explore where their ideas lead them.

8. Debrief.  Take time to talk about the discussion itself – how did it go?  Was the goal achieved?  How did students feel about participating?  Was the text used?  Then give kids a chance to do independent reflections or evaluations, which follows up the discussion with cogent, logical writing.

A Socratic Discussion can create a really dynamic conversation among your students and allow you to assess their reading, understanding, and analysis skills without them even realizing that they are mastering Common Core standards… and suddenly, you are enhancing creative assessments with Common Core — and it’s fun!


To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here


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