Socratic Seminar and The Backchannel


Humanities teacher, Shannon Hancock, at Graded, the American School of São Paulo, read and worked through The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo with her 8th grade students.

Not only did they read the text, learn about literary elements, but also learned to articulate and discuss in a professional manner the text with their peers. Shannon chose to use the Socratic Method, specifically a Socratic Seminar (Inner/Outer Circle Fishbowl) to hand the learning over to her students. She stressed to them: ” Educators don’t need to have all the answers, it is about asking the right questions.” Wikipedia explains the Socratic Seminar as follows:

This approach is based on the belief that participants seek and gain deeper understanding of concepts in the text through thoughtful dialogue rather than memorizing information that has been provided for them. While Socratic Circles can differ in structure, and even in name, they typically involve the following components: a passage of text that students must read beforehand and two concentric circles of students: an outer circle and an inner circle. The inner circle focuses on exploring and analysing the text through the act of questioning and answering. During this phase, the outer circle remains silent. Students in the outer circle are much like scientific observers watching and listening to the conversation of the inner circle. When the text has been fully discussed and the inner circle is finished talking, the outer circle provides feedback on the dialogue that took place. This process alternates with the inner circle students going to the outer circle for the next meeting and vice versa. The length of this process varies depending on the text used for the discussion. The teacher may decide to alternate groups within one meeting, or they may alternate at each separate meeting.

Shannon prepared her classroom by physically arranging the desks in an inner and outer “circle”…


… and prepared her students with the Socratic Seminar Norms for the discussion.


We tweaked the traditional format of the Socratic Seminar to include a backchannel. A backchannel is a  parallel discussion, a collectively shaped comment on some ongoing conversations, not that different than the outer circle described in the Socratic Seminar. The backchannel in this case was the secondary digital discussion of the literary text. One student was the backchannel moderator in charge of making sure that Today’s Meet was projected and refreshed properly on the screen.


Watch the video below to catch a glimpse into Shannon’s classroom and their use of a backchannel for the first time.






Reflection of the Backchannel as part of the whole class text discussion:

  • All students had opportunity to contribute to the conversation (even the “silent” outside circle)
  • (Shy) Students who had a harder time articulating orally their opinions in the “inner” circle were able to contribute in written form
  • The skills to listen, observe, document, contribute, read, write, add value, ask questions and respond to others in the backchannel, all at the same time, is not a skill we are born with. It requires exposure and practice.
  • The backchannel log, gives an opportunity to review and assess individual students beyond the “in-the-moment”. It also gives students an opportunity to review and reflect on the experience.
  • The backchannel exposes students to a collaborative writing environment.
  • Possible extensions: Assign a student (or a group of students) to be the “Backchannel Cleanup“, responsible for saving, copying and pasting the log into a shared document. They then edit and format the log by deleting duplicate, unrelated or non-comprehensible comments. They can also organize the comments according to topics.

Analysis of the Backchannel Log:

There were many different layers going on in the Backchannel.

  1. Observation and comments about the Socratic Seminar behaviors
  2. Observations of literary discussion elements
  3. Documentation of inner circle discussion
  4. Added commentary of own opinions.
  5. Parallel conversation going in backchannel and inner circle.

Please note that the screenshots below are not in chronological order. They are shown to illustrate some of the points of the reflection and thoughts about the use of the backchannel.













I must admit, that I was in complete awe of the students and their teacher of how well prepared they were to come together and have a serious literary discussion round. The Socratic Seminar lesson could have stood on its own without adding any further layer facilitated by technology. It was the quality of the teaching and learning already present that allowed the backchannel to add another quality layer.

I can’t help myself, but I am already dreaming of further amplification.

What if ..

  • What if the class connects with another class who is reading the same book.
  • What if the one of the class can potentially contribute yet another perspective (possibly due to culture or geographical location) to the understanding and comprehension of the text. (Ex. Could our Brazilian class not contribute the perspective of the controversy of the Alchemist book here in Brazil to a class located in Sweden, for example, reading the same book?)
  • What if half of the inner circle (the fish) is in one class and half of the inner circle is participating via Skype or Google Hangout from a different class? (Synchronous)
  • What if the backchannel is comprised of students from BOTH classes (synchronous (Today’s Meet) and asynchronous (Google Document)?

Interested? Let’s dream up another layer of collaborative reading, writing and discussing literary text.