PhiE Circle

The Socratic Circle

A Socratic circle is a format and a method of dialogue based on Socratic aims and approaches (i.e. based on those of the philosopher Socrates as demonstrated through the dialogues of Plato). The format consists of two circles of participants: an ‘inner circle’ and an ‘outer circle’. 

The inner circle conducts a discussion on a topic. The outer circle conducts a discussion about the discussion had by the inner circle. There are different ways that a discussion about a discussion can be had (considering the reasoning, body language, behaviour, procedure etc.) The Socratic circle is often used metaphorically to describe two attitudes to a discussion: a first-order attitude (i.e. what one thinks about the topic under discussion) and a second-order attitude (i.e. what one thinks about the discussion about the topic). Very often two circles will not actually be used but are invoked to illustrate how one engages in one or other of the attitudes that it describes. 

The PhiE Circle Method

By combining the use of a Socratic Circle with the PhiE method the meta-aspect of the philosophical enquiry is deepened and a written aspect to the philosophy sessions can be introduced. The PhiE Circle is not distinct from PhiE but should be seen as a second stage of progression within the method as a whole. Children should begin philosophical enquiry by following the basic method; progression to the use of a PhiE Circle should be made only once the children are familiar and comfortable with the basic model. It marks both the progress they have made as philosophical enquirers and provides a higher level of thinking and engagement for the children to move towards. 

Here follows the basic procedure for a ‘PhiE Circle’:

  1. The class should sit on chairs to form a horseshoe shape.
  2. Every second chair should be moved in towards the centre to form two concentric circles: an inner circle and an outer circle. 
  3. Those on the outer circle are given a ‘Philosophy Journal’ – an exercise book in which the children record their reflections on the discussion taking place in the inner circle (Footnote 1)
  4. The children should divide a page into three equal sections by drawing two lines on the paper. Section 1 has ‘I agree because…’ written at the top left-hand side, section 2 has ‘I disagree because…’ written at the top left-hand corner of section 2 and section 3 has ‘I don’t understand because…’ written in the top left-hand corner of section 3 (Footnote 2).
  5. Explain to the class the purpose of the two circles: that the inner circle will be having a philosophical discussion as usual, but that the outer circle will also be having a discussion but about the discussion that the inner circle has.
  6. Also explain that the paper and pencil is to aid their listening by taking notes and writing in the appropriate column who it is they agree with, disagree with or don’t understand, and importantly to write why. The technique of taking notes while listening is called ‘active listening’ and is a standard technique in the classroom. 
  7. A discussion is had, for 5 to 10 minutes, using the usual PhiE model and questioning techniques as described above and in The If Machine, with the inner circle only. 
  8. When an appropriate ‘paragraph of thought’ (Footnote 3) comes to a close stop the discussion and turn to the outer circle. It is recommendable not to wait too long before turning to the outer circle, usually not longer than about 10 minutes. 
  9. Remind them of the aim of the discussion for the outer circle: that they are supposed to have a discussion about the discussion they have just heard. In order to help keep this disciplined introduce the rule that when they make a contribution they must begin with the words ‘I agree with…’ or ‘I disagree with…’ or ‘I don’t understand…’ and that they must make reference to one of the speakers in the inner circle (Footnote 4).
  10. Children in the inner circle may speak to those in the outer circle only to respond or to clarify when they are made reference to by someone in the outer circle. Other than that, the children should only speak to others in the same circle. 
  11. Allow a few minutes of dialogue from and within the outer circle before returning to the inner circle, allowing their discussion to continue. 
  12. Continue in this way, switching between circles, until you reach the end of the allotted time (usually about an hour). 
  13. It is important that all the children experience being in both circles. This can be done one of two ways (depending on time and opportunity): either have the children swap places with the person behind them, during the session at least once, or have them swap places during the next session. 
  14. CODA: Allow some time at the end of the session for a procedural / social meta-discussion. Either simply invite children from both circles to say something here or select six people to do this job at the beginning of the session. Suggested questions (though not an exhaustive list) for a procedural / social meta-discussion during the final coda are as follows: 
  • Were people listening well? If not, how could this be improved?
  • Were people sticking to the rules? If not, what could be done about this?
  • Did you enjoy the session? Why or why not?
  • Is there anything we could do to improve the philosophy sessions?

Here are some suggested questions (again, not exhaustive) for a cognitive meta-discussion during the final coda: 

  • Did you reach any conclusions (or ‘What did you decide…) about today’s discussion? 
  • Did you hear any ideas that you found particularly interesting? What was interesting about the idea(s)?
  • Did you change your mind at all today? If so, why did you change your mind?

Footnote 1: All the children in the class should have a ‘Philosophy Journal’ but will only make use of it during a PhiE session when they are part of the outer circle. The ‘Philosophy Journal’ can also be used informally, as it is encouraged to be used by P4C practitioners: as a means of the children jotting down questions, musings and thoughts when outside of the philosophy session. The important point in the PhiE circle is that it will provide a record of disciplined, philosophical reflections of a second-order nature that, at the end of a year of doing philosophy using the PhiE circle, will show a body of written work that the children have done. 

Footnote 2: I have a concern about the use of sentence-starters taking away the ownership that the children should have in a philosophical enquiry. For this reason I do not recommend their use in PhiE or Community of Enquiry discussions. However, they are given here simply as guidance for the children when starting a PhiE Circle, and to ensure that their comments are directed towards the inner discussion. The facilitator should welcome and encourage other kinds of response to the inner circle as long as they are directed towards the  comments made by speakers in the inner circle. As time goes by the vocabulary of the outer circle should grow from simply ‘I agree with…’, ‘I disagree with…’ and ‘I don’t understand...’ to expressions such as ‘x doesn’t connect to y because…’ and ‘x should agree with y because…’

Footnote 3: A ‘paragraph of thought’ refers to a form of punctuation that often occurs in these discussions where a series of connected ideas follow each other as a result of a point raised that a number of people engage with. In writing you begin a new paragraph when you are about to begin a new thought or argument. If these discussions were written down then the point at which you would stop would be the point at which a new paragraph was about to be begun.

Footnote 4: This of course will change. See footnote 2 above.

Posted by Peter Worley on 10th June 2017 at 12:00am