Socratic circles for critical thinking: an exercise with PhD students

I promised that my ‘Critical Thinking 2’ session for the PhD students would focus more on the development of oral critical thinking skills.  I came across the idea of ‘Socratic Circles’* and thought I would give it a try. I did it slightly differently to the linked document – for example I did not distribute the texts in advance. I shared some thoughts about the concept of ‘critical thinking’. These are explored more in Critical Thinking 1 (which not all the students had done—this wasn’t really supposed to be the case).

  • Not making assumptions
  • Precise questions
  • Precise answers
  • Thinking carefully about what other people say
  • Being able to defend your opinion
  • Thinking about thinking
  • Open to the possibility of being wrong
  • Making time for thinking

What I did

  1. I had seven students in the session who I divided into two groups.
  2. I distributed to each individual a sheet of paper with two quotes:


"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • ·         the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."

World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987 p. 43. [Bruntland Report]


“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

On reflection the second quote was too complicated, whereas all the students were able to discuss the first. I will choose another if I do this again.

3. I gave the students a few minutes to read the quotes and make notes if they wished.
4. The first group sat in the centre of the room and discussed Quote 1 whilst the second group observed.
5. The discussion time was set at about 10 minutes. I had minimal input into the discussion and the observing group were not allowed to comment or intervene.
6. After the discussion, the second group had ten minutes to discuss what had just witnessed. Before the discussion I suggested the observing group look out for:

  1. Arguments and opinions put forward
  2. Where and when opinions were challenged or not challenged.
  3. Was there anything which surprised them or particularly stood out.
  4. Did any of the participants appear to change their views?
  5. The groups then swapped over the group which previously observed discussed quote 2 and those who had discussed quote 1 observes. This was a struggle, in part because the students found the quote much harder to understand.

What was got out of it?

I did not know quite how this was going to work out. The discussion of the second quote did not go well at all, but it was encouraging to observe the discussion the sustainable development quote went . There was a high level of critical thinking displayed in thinking about the content of the quote, and whether, as it was written in 1987 was it appropriate for 2013? Ideas of wants and needs were discussed. A discussion on vegetarianism was particularly interesting.

In a short 10 minute discussion the students were able to dig into the complexities of the sustainable development quote, thinking about assumptions, definitions, actions which might be needed, who was responsible, how behaviour needs to change and the ethics of asking ‘less developed countries’ to forego the development and prosperity experienced by the ‘west’. It wasn’t the purpose of the task to come to a consensus or a conclusion.

I did this exercise PhD students. It might be a risky with undergraduates who might be reluctant to talk and fully participate.

Will I do it again?

I will try it again. I will definitely use a different second quote. I might reflect more on the outcomes, but the process is central to the exercise.  There might be a case for distribution a longer passage of text in advance, but then I would have to rely on students reading and thinking about it before the session.

*Some things on this website are a bit ‘out there’, but I thought this exercise was worth a try.

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