Guidelines for Facilitating a Socrates Café
A Socrates Cafe is special type of conversation:
A Socratic dialogue is unique is that it encourages participants to join together to seek a deeper meaning of a question, a reading and/or a problem. Rather than being a debate or a discussion, Socratic dialogue is an intentional conversation where participants are encouraged to listen to each other and to learn from one another. This form of discourse- and its focus on the search for knowledge- comes from Socrates, who observed “Wisdom Begins in Wonder.”
Socrates Cafes begin with a question, chosen by the group, that forms the basis of discussion for the gathering. The questions can be chosen ahead of time or voted on by participants at the beginning of the meeting. While any question open up a topic for discussion, the best questions for students, in my experience are those queries that are both “timeless and timely ”i.e., those questions that are important to participants in students’ daily lives while at the same being questions that are not time-bound- that is to say, those questions that people have asked before us and will continue to ask long after we can no longer be part of the dialogue.
A Socratic dialogue IS:
A Socratic dialogue is an opportunity for participants to learn from one another, to work collaboratively and to delve deeply into questions, issues or materials. Rather than focusing on answers, this type of inquiry focuses on questions. It is grounded in inquiry, deep curiosity and the belief that “none of us is as smart as all of us.” These conversations are constructivist and transformative, as participants work to create meaning by employing active listening, critical thinking and tolerance for different perspectives. A successful dialogue is one that leaves participants with more questions than answers, and one is often left with more confusion about answers and/or opinions about which one was previously adamant.
A Socratic Dialogue IS NOT:
- An exercise in which the goal is to come to definitive answer to a particular question-
- A freewheeling, unstructured discussion
- A debate where people take sides and one side “wins”
- A series of people speaking to listen themselves talk
Framing the Discussion: What is a “Timeless and Timely Question?
Almost any topic is appropriate for this type of dialogue: the best type of questions often is a “timely and timeless Question”
- A question that creates ideas- not sides- of an issue
- A question that is complex, and that can be “unpacked”
- A question that invites different perspectives on an issue
- A question that activates curiosity
- A question that opens up a wide range of possibilities for investigation
- A question that is important NOW
- A question that we as humans have ALWAYS been concerned with
Ground Rules useful for a Socratic Dialogue:
- One person speaks at a time: be respectful and try not to interrupt one another
- No need to raise hands “pretend we are not in school”
- Listen deeply to learn from each other: Try to hear what other people are saying by listening to what perspectives and assumptions might lay beneath their comments
- Think deeply before responding to one another; work to respond rather than react instantly to a comment – ask for clarification if need be so you understand what the speaker is saying
- Silence is fine – do not feel that you need to speak
- If you are lost as to what is happening, speak up!
Advice for Facilitators:
Ask probing questions when needed to deepen the conversation and keep it going
- How? Why? When? Under what conditions?
Active Listening Techniques:
- “ So, did I just hear you say?”
- “What I hear you saying is…”
- “ Help me to understand what you just said”
- “ Can you explain that in more detail?”
Keeping the Conversation on Track:
- “That is an interesting point, but I think that we are beginning to stray from the original question.”
- “That is a great point, but I think that it addresses another topic”
- “ That comment leads to many wonderful questions that might be the subject of a further dialogue- let’s go back to the question at hand.”
The Importance of Reflection at the End of Every Dialogue:
Debriefing at the end of each dialogue is an important learning opportunity for all participants- especially for students. When we are encouraged to examine what we have learned and how we learn, in Socratic dialogue, it empowers us to take charge of our learning and exercise our voice in new and powerful ways.
Sample questions to ask at the end of a Socrates Café:
- How many of you enjoyed this dialogue? Why?
- What did you like about this dialogue? Can you be specific?
- Do you feel differently about your answer to this question now than before the dialogue?
- What is one thing you learned about yourself today?
- What is one thing you learned about how you operated in this group setting?
- Do you have more questions now than before we talked? If so, what are some of them?
- Reflect on the adage, “None of us is as smart as all of us”- how does it apply here?
Watch two students at Harwood Union HS in Duxbury, VT introduce the Guidelines for a Socrates Café: