Socratic Circles Cluster

Workshop at Immigration Museum 2009
Workshop at Immigration Museum 2009
Image: Singing Bowl Media
Source: Museum Victoria

Melbourne Interfaith Intercultural Cluster – a dialogue project for students.

Background

The idea of establishing a group of diverse schools to work on values was motivated by the social climate of our time. The establishment of the first Melbourne Interfaith Intercultural cluster coincided with the fifth anniversary of September 11.

A number of groups have used that event to justify generalizations about race and religion and a culture of fear and misunderstanding pervaded many areas of our community following the events now known as 9/11.

Any worthwhile educational reform responds to genuine need and as educators we have a responsibility to help create a healthy, peaceful and vibrant community. The Lead School in the project, St. Monica’s College canvassed support for the idea of an interfaith, intercultural dialogue project and invited a diverse range of schools to be involved. Our aim was to create a cluster of schools which transcended the three school systems: Government, Independent and Catholic. Four schools were enthusiastic about being involved.

The choice to use the Socratic Circle framework for student gatherings was very deliberate. We did not want students in the project to simply meet and chat. We hoped to encourage meaningful discussion about cultural issues and felt that the Socratic Circle method promotes more equitable and productive discussion, respect for divergent opinions, freedom of expression, engagement in questioning for greater understanding, and confidence.

Purposes of the project

The main purpose of our project is to provide opportunities for students of different faiths and from different cultural backgrounds to interact with one another and to discuss issues relating to community identity and values. The use of Socratic Circles as an alternative to traditional classroom discussion methods is a fundamental aspect of the project.

What are Socratic Circles?

The Socratic Circle model begins with students examining a text in detail. The text may be a poem, a newspaper article, a scene from a movie, a poster or an object. Students are given time to think about the significance of the text and to ‘read’ it critically. They are taught to attend to the text by highlighting significant words, phrases and sections, and to take notes on the text to use when they speak in the Socratic Circle. The process is not confronting as some classroom discussions can be, because students have the chance to prepare their responses in advance.

When it is time to form the Socratic Circle, students are chosen at random to be members of the Inner Circle or the Outer Circle. Each circle is of approximately equal size, and should proportionally represent the schools involved. Members of the Inner Circle sit in a tight circle in the centre of the room, while members of the Outer Circle sit in a looser circle around the outside. The Inner Circle is the discussion forum, while the outer circle later provides feedback on what took place. Members of the Outer Circle listen in silence while discussion takes place in the Inner Circle, and members of the Inner Circle listen quietly when the Outer Circle gives feedback on the discussion. Members of the Outer Circle and the Inner Circle then change places. A summary of these arrangements is provided in A step-by-step guide.

Reflections/observations

The feedback we have received from our students in the form of vox pops, reflection sheets, Socratic Circle Feedback Sheets and pre & post testing indicates that the interactions among some of the students have resulted in a change in perception. Individuals soon realised that we share many values and through mutual respect can come to understand each other more deeply.

“I believe the day went smoothly and was a bigger success than the organizers had planned. The Socratic Circles gave the students a chance to speak together and share their interests as well as have a chance to express their feelings about their beliefs and about the topic being discussed. All the students from the schools then had the opportunity to be involved in celebrations with the Jewish festival ‘Purim’. I believed the day turned out great and was heaps of fun.” (C - KDS)
“I thought the Muslim girls would be very strict and serious, but they were laughing and talking – they were great. I just loved them!” (M - SMC)
“I learnt a lot today. I learnt about the negative stereotypes Christians feel and the different beliefs/events that Jews believe in. I also got to find out the different ways people want to combat racism, what people see as Australian values, etc. I also learnt a lot about how we should see individuals not groups of people.” (S - AIA)
“The highlight of this experience for me was being able to interact with people from different faiths and backgrounds and cultures. The Socratic Circles that I have been apart of have allowed me to voice my opinions in a non-threatening environment. And it was also interesting to hear other people’s views.” (E - SC)

“Everyone has very different music tastes. And that even though we may be different religions, we still have the same common values.” (N - AIA)

“I learnt we all think alike and although our exteriors and backgrounds are different we are one in the same.” (A - THS)