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Doubts About the Socratic Method:

Like some other law professors, I have long had doubts about the merits of the Socratic method - at least in its full-blown "Professor Kingsfield" form, where any student can be called on at any time and most of the class time is taken up by questions the professor poses to students who are selected involuntarily. Over the years, I have spent more time lecturing and have adopted an approach under which students can only be called on involuntarily if they signed up to be "on call" that day (each is required to sign up several times over the course of the semester). To give students an incentive to do the reading and participate on days when they aren't on call, I give class participation bonuses to those who make especially good comments.

In this interesting post, Steve Bainbridge outlines some reservations about the Socratic method that are similar to my own, and advocates dropping it entirely - a more radical stance than mine. He also cites this Brian Leiter post, which makes a similar argument, and a book by Lani Guinier where she argues that the standard Socratic method disadvantages female students.

In addition to the points Bainbridge and Leiter make, I would add that the classic Socratic method ends up squandering a great deal of class time on answers by students who are poorly prepared or simply don't understand the question posed to them. It also often confuses students about the right answer by "hiding the ball" from them - a serious drawback in classes where students have to learn a large amount of complex and counterintuitive material. Finally, aggressive use of the Socratic method sometimes leads to resentment and tension between students and the professor, which at least in my experience inhibits learning more than it facilitates it.

I don't necessarily agree with all the objections to the Socratic method listed by Bainbridge and Leiter. Limited use of the method might still have value in many large classes as a way of ensuring that all students participate in the discussion. But I do think its shortcomings are serious enough that we should cut back on its use even if we don't abolish it entirely.

cirby (mail):
Any questions?
8.21.2008 2:54pm
Sarcastro (www):
[WCL, my alma mater, doesn't use the Socratic method, though students are asked to volunteer to summarize cases.

This doesn't seem to effect the Prof's teaching ability in any material way. Students that stop breifing cases or neglecting the reading pay for it during finals week or during the exam.]
8.21.2008 2:55pm
Snaphappy Fishsuit Mokiligon:
Well why not get rid of the casebook method altogether? Law would be much easier to learn from outlines and well-written treatises.
8.21.2008 2:59pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
What law schools really need to do more than anything is drop the ridiculous practice of basing the semester's grade on one final exam. If there is no chance that you are going to be called on involuntarily, There will even be less incentive to keep up with reading.

And you wonder why so many students surf the web during class.

Of course it would also help if more than the first year of law school really mattered. You learn practically everything you need to know to pass the bar in your first year, the prestigious associations (law review, etc.) are decided, and by the middle of second semester your future employment prospects are pretty much set.
8.21.2008 3:02pm
Big E:
The problem with the Socratic method is that so many professors just aren't very good at using it. Properly used the SM provokes a great deal of thought and discussion of the issues.
8.21.2008 3:15pm
XON:
The classic imperative of the teacher is to, "Bring the listener from where they are to where you wish them to be."

I think the Socratic method retains the virtue of showing the professor where the class 'is'. When you question random students, you get a sense of where the class has gotten to, based on what they have done up to that point in time. If done correctly, the socratic professor will riff off of the answers to move the class forward in the areas where they are deficient.

Also of concern is the uneven quality of lecture instruction, and the absence of comparable alternatives in teaching methods. If we ditch the socratic method, with what would we replace it?
8.21.2008 3:18pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
I think you are absolutely right. Hard Socratic is a horrible teaching method. "Soft" Socratic is better than "lecture only." (It's the way I teach to ordinary people at the community college level). You pique the class' interest with "questions" where you try to elucidate the answer from them. But you don't hide the ball. You try to bring them along, give them clues and before too long you, the professor, give them the proper answer. It has the best of both worlds: By encouraging participation, It draws the classes attention in more so than "lecture only," but it also ensures that before too long (in some cases less than one minute time) the professor gives the class the proper answer.
8.21.2008 3:21pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
but it also ensures that before too long (in some cases less than one minute time) the professor gives the class the proper answer.
What is this "proper answer" of which you speak? The only "proper answer" in law is "It depends."
8.21.2008 3:23pm
FantasiaWHT:
I think the method is better-designed to teach point preparedness and how to work under pressure that to teach large amounts of substantive knowledge. I think teaching the former has value, but it needs to be balanced.
8.21.2008 3:26pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Proper answer = black letter law where I teach. We keep it simple, stupid.
8.21.2008 3:37pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
"resentment and tension between students and the professor," ? Aha! Perhaps it were former students complaining to the Athenian government? Some kids who got a poor grades complained to their Fathers in the city council. There's a real reason behind Socrates trial and execution.
8.21.2008 3:41pm
Wallace:
I think BarBri has taught us that we can all learn the law in about a month with catchy songs, bad puns, and straight-foward lectures giving the black letter law.
8.21.2008 3:41pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
I try to "edutain" using Family Guy, Simpsons, Southpark and other relevant examples.
8.21.2008 3:45pm
EIDE_Interface (mail):
Just reading this from an engineer's standpoint, my respect for the legal profession is diminishing with every hour. Students are too weak-minded to handle being called upon to answer a question during class? That's just lame.
8.21.2008 3:46pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Today's law students must suffer the same way I suffered.


Properly used the SM provokes a great deal of thought and discussion of the issues.

The fear of the spotlight being turned on you keeps students alert. The rest is one-upsmanship -- the professor knows all and the 1L knows nothing. Even when I was right (providing good analysis), I was still wrong.
8.21.2008 3:46pm
DiverDan (mail):

a book by Lani Guinier where she argues that the standard Socratic method disadvantages female students.


I haven't read the book, but having read other materials by Guinier, I'd be fascinated to hear her reasoning on this - Does she assert that female students are not as good at thinking on their feet? Not as good at being assertive in verbal sparring? I find it hard to imagine any rationale for the assertion that females are disadvantaged by the Socratic Method that wouldn't apply equally to the practice of law. Does Lani Guinier claim that the practice of law ought to be handicapped to account for the disadvantages suffered by females? This strikes me as ludicrous, but, unfortunately, not the most ridiculous claim ever made by Ms. Guinier.
8.21.2008 3:46pm
AnneS:
Put my vote in "soft" Socratic, although I actually prefer at least ocasional involuntary questioning. Hard or soft, I really think the value depends on the attitude and skill of the teacher. If the teacher delights in "gotcha" games, insists on keeping the ball hidden, continues to torture students who don't understand or didn't prepare without giving them some helpful hints, etc., they're a bad teacher and would be a bad teacher with or without the Socratic method.

(Oh, and no offense, J.F., but can we please, for the love of all that is holy, retire the bullshit line about the only year that matters being first year because that's when all your career prospects are set? I know a disturbingly high percentage of students and professors believe it, but it's not true, it's never been true. Unless the only career you want or ever will want is in Big Law (tm), the other two years matter, too. And since the vast majority of law students will never go into Big Law and a significant percent of those that do won't stay there, the myth of the super-high stakes first year is pretty idiotic and damaging.)
8.21.2008 3:48pm
Happyshooter:
I have only seen it done well in the TV show style once. That was Jimmy White at Michigan, who struck the right tone and would ask questions that forced the students to think. He also had a great sense of when to let a student off the hook when they locked up.

Everyone else who tried the method failed, and would have been better off with the lecture method, with only a short period of asking students questions per hour.
8.21.2008 3:49pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

Students are too weak-minded to handle being called upon to answer a question during class?

"a" question. Ha!

Students would bring their loved ones to this one prof's class, just so they could appreciate what went on there. It was a combination of thrill ride and being flayed alive.
8.21.2008 3:51pm
TerrencePhilip:
As they say, the people of Athens liked the Socratic method so much they killed Socrates. The method has its appeal, as you are so often called upon in law to justify some position you've taken, but after the first year the point has been made.

I agree with DiverDan that Guinier's idea seems ridiculous- women do fine in law school. Snaphappy, casebooks are useful because so much of what lawyers do is read cases and other materials, from which they must synthesize an argument or divine "the law." EIDE_Interface, your respect for the legal profession would really fall if you spent a few days with certain lawyers I could think of; you are missing the nuances of this particular discussion, I think, because you seem unfamiliar with the Socratic method as traditionally practiced in law schools. It differs from the way engineering and math are taught.
8.21.2008 3:55pm
SeaDrive:
Mathematician, not a lawyer, and I always felt there was a component of hazing in the Socratic method, justified by the notion that a lawyer has to think on his feet in court and other confrontation/negotiation situations. A lawyer who is not good at it, or dislikes it, will find some other kind of law to practice.

Research has shown that the one hour lecture is not an efficient way to teach, but it remains the most common element of our educational system. It's convenient for the teachers, after all. Class discussion is not a lecture, so it may be a help.

It my house, we believe that the most dreaded words a student can hear are "we're going to break into groups..."

Aside to DiverDan: I don't know Ms. Gunier's arguement either, but if you have any candor in your soul, you have to acknowledge that there are plenty of misogynists out there who are not above ridiculing female students.
8.21.2008 3:55pm
Guest 2L:
I had one professor who used the Socratic method brilliantly--best class I've ever taken. The problem is that the Socratic method is incredibly hard to do right and incredibly easy to do badly. Some professors seem to turn into John Houseman whenever they haven't prepared for class. One professor would generally lecture but every once in a while alternate between questions like "What kind of wood were the barrel hoops made out of?" and questions like "What do you think of eminent domain?" Maybe it's good practice to be put on the spot, but difficult questions that can be reasonably answered could do that just as well.

I wasn't too impressed with the soft Socratic method, either. Most of the class zones out most of the time, probably more so than if no one was ever on call.
8.21.2008 3:56pm
Arkady:

It also often confuses students about the right answer by "hiding the ball" from them


Of course, in the method's original incarnation, the ball was hidden in plain sight, as Meno was shown. I wonder if a talented teacher could hide the legal ball in plain sight for the students.
8.21.2008 3:56pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

Does she assert that female students are not as good at thinking on their feet? Not as good at being assertive in verbal sparring?

The Socratic method is a power play game, like dominance/submission. Submissive people are intimidated.
8.21.2008 3:58pm
Connecticut Lawyer (mail):
Prof. Israel at Michigan Law School was a master of the modified Socratic method. In my 1L Criminal Law class, he would go down the rows and call on 3-5 students every day, so you knew, within a couple of days, when he would get to you. That meant that students were better prepared and better able to fence with the master. And Israel was a master at teaching how to dig into a case, figure out different ways of looking at it, and make a variety of different types of arguments for one result or the other. He taught us more about how to construct a legal argument than anyone else.

The other great benefit of this type of instruction is that it helps prepare students, even if only in a small way, for the profession into which they are entering. As lawyers, they will be called upon to speak up forcefully on behalf of clients in situations that make Israel's class seem like a day on the beach. That's true whether they are litigators or corporate lawyers or even tax lawyers. Lani Guinier notwithstanding, that includes the female lawyers, too. Students who can't think on their feet, or who can't parry with a very smart adversary in front of a large audience, or who can't be bothered to prepare for class, well, they should find another line of work. Indeed, that happened to one of my classmates the first week of class - he hadn't read the case, although he knew he was coming up, and Prof. Israel had the whole class wait for him while he read it. That student dropped out a week later and that was the right thing for him and for the rest of us.
8.21.2008 3:59pm
A.S.:
Whether the Socratic Method is effective depends, like most other methods, on the skill of professor and the individual students' proclivities.

Speaking for myself, my favorite professor in law school (Charles Abernathy) used a "hard" Socratic method for Civ Pro. I had no interest in the subject (I knew I wasn't going to become a litigator), and yet still ended up with my best First Year mark in his class due to his teaching methods. Took Civil Rights with him the next year, and received another 'A', even though, again, it wasn't something I am ever going to use in my career as a securities lawyer. His teaching style just clicked with my best learning style.

I'm sure that different styles work for different professors, and for different students. Whether a professor can adjust his style from year-to-year to play best to a particular group of students is questionable. So I'd think that the professor should just use whichever style he thinks works best for him. If he's a good teacher, I'd bet it will work regardless of whether it is Socratic or not.
8.21.2008 4:03pm
Dave N (mail):
I think class participation is important but while the Socratic method was great in The Paper Chase, I found it sucked like an electrolux for actually learning the law.

My best (and favorite) law professor was also a Federal Magistrate Judge in his spare time who used a lecture method that showed tremendous preparation on his part. He spent the first ten minutes as a recap of the previous lecture and then presented new information, including citations to cases from extraordinarly obscure court (how many people knew the Supreme Court of Micronesia publishes cases?) often of extremely recent vintage (he once cited a case decided the day before).

I learned Evidence and Criminal Procedure (among other things) that way and feel like I actually learned something.

(BTW, he was also the only law professor I had who did not do essays--instead the final was a true/false exam--and you had better know the substantive law for it or you would really, really suffer).
8.21.2008 4:06pm
Not Professor Kingsfield:
I saw two extremes of bad Socratic teaching in law school, one ridiculously forgiving, the other ridiculously demanding.

At one extreme was a federal income tax professor whose questioning consisted entirely of inquiring of a random student whether he understood everything that the professor had just said: "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Mr. Smith, do you have any questions, or can I move on?"

At the other extreme was a Civil Procedure professor who, after having a student explain the facts, reasoning and holding of a court case that fit perfectly into the "mainstream" viewpoint of the cases and explanations found in the casebook, would occasionally ask something like, "Mr. Smith, why is the court completely, 100% wrong?"
8.21.2008 4:30pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
I think part of the problem is that some people don't understand the purpose of the Socratic Method. If it's to humiliate those who don't do the reading (or who just don't get it), it's going to be a failure. If it's to force people to think (instead of blindly typing up everything the professor spoon feeds to them), it can be very useful. If you're only going to do the latter, you might just as well buy a Gilbert's and not go to class.
8.21.2008 4:32pm
TerrencePhilip:
I think part of the problem is that some people don't understand the purpose of the Socratic Method. If it's to humiliate those who don't do the reading (or who just don't get it), it's going to be a failure. If it's to force people to think (instead of blindly typing up everything the professor spoon feeds to them), it can be very useful. If you're only going to do the latter, you might just as well buy a Gilbert's and not go to class.

Well said- in the hands of a hack or a jerk, any method of instruction will suck. I think the legal education system does a pretty good job overall, except maybe with making students into good writers coming out of school- those are relatively rare birds.
8.21.2008 4:46pm
David Warner:
"you have to acknowledge that there are plenty of misogynists out there who are not above ridiculing female students"

and plenty of strong female students who can put them in their place, sans genitalia...

As an educator, I would second David Nieporent's point. It's a crucial distinction, although if you do the latter effectively you can achieve the former somewhat as a fringe benefit, at least the part about non-preparation humiliation (humility not being an entirely useless experience for a student to on occasion enjoy - avoiding due preparation after graduation often bringing consequences beyond mere humiliation).
8.21.2008 4:47pm
rarango (mail):
Many Professors (all ranks from instructor to Professor) are terribly bad teachers. Why? there isnt much preparation for their stint as a teacher. Some schools I am familiar with do offer some prep sessions and their are "self help groups." I bet most teachers are doing what they have have had done to them by a previous generation of equally ill prepared teachers. Socratic method, IMO, works best in a Oxford Don type of situation--one on one; lectures are the lest effective way to teach (although they are efficient if the drill is to fill the seats and teach them cheap). (all of this is that I have no experience teaching law; only public administration and history).
8.21.2008 4:47pm
rarango (mail):
oops--last sentence: all of this <b>said</b>...

Getting a PhD makes for a good researcher but necessarily a good teacher
8.21.2008 4:50pm
Sum Budy:
In law school, I experienced some great Socratic teachers and other great teachers who simply lectured without any use of the Socratic method. I also experienced some otherwise excellent lecturers who hadn't a clue how to properly use the Socratic method.

I actually do think that the Socratic method is a good way to teach students to "think like a lawyer." Those professors who use it well understand that the purpose is not to humiliate a student but instead to get the student to realize that sometimes there are clear right &wrong answers and sometimes there is no clear answer. My experience in law school was that during the first year, it took quite a while for some students to wrap their minds around the idea that there wasn't necessarily "one" right answer. A professor who twists the facts bit by bit forces students to understand how law works.

I also found that older students are less likely to be intimated by professors using the Socratic method -- once you've reached a certain point in life, you really don't care if you look foolish in class, and you're not going to take lip from a junior professor who may be younger than you.

Finally, to any professor reading this -- the Socratic method is not about whether or not students can spit back the facts by rote. It's all about getting the student to reason given slight changes in the facts. Those professors who spend most of their time testing whether students have done the reading are wasting the time of those students who actually have done their homework.
8.21.2008 4:51pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
When I went to law school, the first year was socratic except for one professor--Rudy Schlesinger--who was European, and even he used a method that seemed socratic, though the "right answer" always emerged, no matter what the student said. At the annual law school show, we sang a song, "Rudy the Law Professor," which ended with the memorable line, "With Rudy the law professor, you don't ever have to think." It was not meant as praise, though today it might be taken that way. In the upper classes, my experience with teachers who lectured was that you'd soak up the material, get a good grade, and promptly forget every single thing that was covered. As for Lani Guinier's argument, one of the pleasures of teaching (back in the day) was seeing timid people (some, but certainly not all, women) who were reluctant to speak up in class grow into people who vigorously defended their arguments. I don't see much benefit from the change to a kinder, gentler form of teaching, except for teachers: preparing to teach a class socratically is time-consuming, hard work. Reading last year's lecture notes is a snap.
8.21.2008 4:52pm
Archon (mail):
This is stupid.

First -


Finally, aggressive use of the Socratic method sometimes leads to resentment and tension between students and the professor, which at least in my experience inhibits learning more than it facilitates it.


Are modern students that spineless that they build resentment over tough questioning? What are they going to do - demand the administration make the professor drink hemlock if they are the least bit offended in class. With the state of the university today - this actually wouldn't surprise me though.

Second -


"...the standard Socratic method disadvantages female students."

But I thought women were just as capable of doing everything that a man can do. At least I think that is the modern feminist line.

So, we are going to throw out a more than one hundred year tradition in law schools because women find it marginally harder to answer questions under such a method? Let's just dumb down the educational system in an effort to find that false holy grail of true equality.

Lastly -


"It also often confuses students about the right answer by "hiding the ball" from them..."


Not every question has only one "right" answer, especially in the law. Why do we want to train our future lawyers to believe that there is only ever one right answer? Most cases, or legal problems, have multiple "right" ways of approaching it.

Maybe by presenting information in such a way we won't get students who sit back in class and think to themselves, "come on old man give me the answer already." Maybe it will make them think for a change.
8.21.2008 4:53pm
gasman (mail):
Winston Churchill was right. "There's nothing quite as exhilarating as being shot at and missed."
Straight Socratic teaching leads to a lot of (possibly) good questions being posed, and quite a few poor answers. It can leave an hour spent achieving nothing of value for the majority of students.
An occasional question tossed out can quickly sharpen the mind of the otherwise dreaming, or now web surfing, class, especially if they know that without some brainiac or suckup raising their hand to provide an answer, that the prof will select a student at random.
A student knowing that they have to keep half alert to the lecture will likely have better retention of the material. And there is nothing quite so exhilarating as having the question zing over your head to the guy behind you that has been kicking your seat incessantly.
8.21.2008 4:57pm
tarheel:
The fundamental problem with the Socratic method is that it forces 80 other students to sit there and listen to one student stumble and bumble through 20 minutes of torture. It may be helpful or a good lesson for that one student but it is a colossal waste of time for everyone else. This is amplified when that one student is unprepared or not that bright. If you want to know why students surf the net in class it's because they have no interest in listening to the dufus they saw puking his guts out the night before bluff his way through a discussion of Erie v. Tompkins.
8.21.2008 5:06pm
zippypinhead:
Two of my favorite professors, for very different reasons:
I have only seen it done well...once. That was Jimmy White at Michigan, who struck the right tone and would ask questions that forced the students to think.
J.J. White scared the crap out of me. Uncompromising demand for excellence, and entirely random in who he called on. White was especially frightening at 8:00 am when he was at his peak and most of the class was bleary-eyed. The students had to be prepared daily, as it was impossible to know when you were going to be put on the spot, and at that early hour it was even more difficult to rely only on one's wits.
Prof. Israel at Michigan Law School was a master of the modified Socratic method. In my 1L Criminal Law class, he would go down the rows and call on 3-5 students every day, so you knew, within a couple of days, when he would get to you. That meant that students were better prepared and better able to fence with the master.
Jerry Israel exhibited a huge amount of common sense, both in case analysis and in dealing with students. He was someone I was almost eager to spar with in class. But the pre-scheduled calling on students was a common faculty crutch at Michigan when I was there. I got the distinct impression it was mostly for the professors' benefit -- it cut down on having to waste time with under-prepared students. For the students, it meant one could kick back an minimize class prep except a couple times a semester when your number was up.

In the end, I probably learned more in White's classes. Daily fear of being grilled, like the prospect of hanging, concentrates the mind wonderfully.

The Socratic method is great training for litigators who have to be quick on their feet during hard questioning from intimidating people in black robes. I definitely left law school with better oral advocacy skills and self-confidence on my feet. But had I instead gone into a non-adversarial transactional practice, I might have never realized just how much it mattered.
8.21.2008 5:09pm
Alex B:
Well done SM requires tremendous case preparation and knowledge of which student to call on to get the discussion where it needs to go by the instructor. How often does this take place?

Don't law students play turkey bingo?
8.21.2008 5:21pm
Golda:
I think the Socratic method is exciting, fun, and useful to the student. Obviously some professor can be cruel with it but its doubtful that he is interested in teaching anyway, so no method would work for him.
8.21.2008 5:29pm
Casper the Friendly Guest:
The only reason to use classic Socratic method is to terrorize students into doing the reading, and even that is an imprecise target since some students (like me) go into panic mode if called upon randomly, regardless of preparation.

I prefer the soft method because then I am mentally prepared to speak in class.

Otherwise, it's a bit like going into the Seventh Circuit to watch oral argument, only to have Judge Easterbrook pick you out of the audience and start grilling you. Doesn't happen in practice, so why should it happen in law school?
8.21.2008 5:39pm
Virginian:
One of my favorite in-class moments was when one of my professors asked another student: "What would Mr. [Virginian] say about [such-and-such point]"?

I obviously was not shy about giving my opinion.
8.21.2008 5:39pm
PersonFromPorlock:
But what if (and this may not apply in a law school) the professor is a dolt? It does happen, and fairly often.
8.21.2008 5:45pm
Dave N (mail):
PersonFromPorlock,
But what if (and this may not apply in a law school) the professor is a dolt? It does happen, and fairly often.
Like anything else, law professor quality will vary. However, as a general rule (at least in my experience), law professors are fairly bright and enjoy teaching, so the number of "dolts" is fairly low--though there are some.
8.21.2008 6:06pm
Mikeyes (mail):
My experience with the Socratic method is a little different. In the third and fourth years of medical school that is the primary method of teaching since it is assumed that you have done the reading and preparation for each individual patient. In these cases the goal is not to teach new information (although a lot of new information comes out in the process) but to see how you think under the kinds of pressure that dealing with a patient and his or her disease can bring while in a safe environment since medical students are not expected to make the final decisions.

In addition there is the lesson of humility and learning that it is better to know your limitations and expand them than to try and slip past the question with BS. There are teachers who take sadistic delight in pounding on students, but those teachers are not as prevalent for a variety of reasons.

The main difference is that 1L students subjected to the hard Socratic method are not as prepared as third and fourth year medical students who have not only had the opportunity to do the studying but have seen the method in action for two years before being subjected to it. The other difference is that when used in medical schools, the focus is more specific and involves a known patient and possibly a known set of facts. What is taught in the end is a way of logically thinking through a problem while imparting information.
8.21.2008 6:10pm
Perseus (mail):
Does she assert that female students are not as good at thinking on their feet? Not as good at being assertive in verbal sparring?

According to Lani Guinier, "this pattern of instruction intimidates women students." In other words, professors should be paternalistic and treat them like delicate flowers.
8.21.2008 6:33pm
TRE:
One problem with the so called Socratic method is that law professors who use it are generally not on par with Socrates.
8.21.2008 6:38pm
Splunge:
In the sciences, I would say we never use this "Socratic method" -- although we are not so scholastically inclined that we ever really much debate which "methods" to consciously use -- you do what works, and shift it class-by-class, even student-by-student or minute-to-minute, as necessary -- except for the curious phenomenon of the oral PhD exam, when it comes out in full force.

The preservation there is probably for the same reasons Mikeyes sees it in medicine: if you are going to be a principle investigator, you need to be able to sort out what you know and don't know, and creatively circumscribe areas of your ignorance, and be able to rank the importance of questions. You need to be able not only to duplicate the textbook, but to criticize, revise and extend it.

Personally, except at the highest level, where students are so nearly matched with their interlocutors that both can learn, I think this "Socratic method" is nothing but training in sophistry (ha ha). It teaches the student to be arrogant and fulsome in long chains of plausible reasoning, which may be -- indeed, usually are -- entirely specious, void of factual support. It has, therefore, almost no real place in empirical science, wherein the winner is he with the answer verified by experimental reality, not he with the answer backed up by the most clever and persuasive theory.

Roughly speaking, in the sciences we tend to believe that logic is merely a way of going wrong with confidence.
8.21.2008 6:40pm
Carolina:
I'll cast my lot in with the defenders of the SM, in at least some form.

The point of law school is not to just pour black-letter law into your brain that can be regurgitated on the bar exam. Another goal of a good law school is to prepare students to handle a smart adversary who brings up an unexpected argument, or how to handle a surprising fact that comes out at trial or at deposition, or how best to respond when a judge throws a hardball question at you during oral argument.
8.21.2008 6:57pm
TerrencePhilip:
Splunge, law is not science, it's no surprise teaching methods are different. You can't very well do an "experiment" to determine whether the 14th Amendment applies to school segregation, prohibits state universities from adopting affirmative action programs, or governs county-based recounts of presidential ballots. I doubt law school "teaches the student to be arrogant and fulsome" any more than PhD training teaches scientists to be arrogant and condescending to students and nonscientists.
8.21.2008 7:05pm
loki13 (mail):
Have you ever had a bad lecturer drone on? Yes? Does that mean lectures should never be used to teach students?

It's the same with the Socratic method. My absolute best law school experience came from a Professor who, for the most part, employed the Socratic method to get us to think about cases, and the law, in new ways. To really understand things. Even if you were completely prepared (and if you weren't, you immediately informed the Professor), you were lead into new areas.

The class was amazing, and ended up changing what area of law I wanted to practice in.

SM is a tool. In the hands of a tool, it is bad tool. In the hands of a great professor, it is the best way to teach (most) areas of the law. Not so sure about tax...
8.21.2008 7:25pm
zippypinhead:
Splunge, law is not science, it's no surprise teaching methods are different.
Actually, my father (an engineer) opined on many occasions that his favorite science and engineering professors in college used the Socratic method very effectively, especially in "lab" contexts. Instead of answering a question (especially of the "I don't know/don't understand/can't figure out..." genre), they would ask questions until the student discerned the answer himself.

Then again, my father also commented he went to college in a very different era, when professors actually ran the labs rather than delegating them to grad students for whom English is a fourth language (behind whatever they grew up speaking in their home country and a couple of computer programming languages).
8.21.2008 7:39pm
Opher Banarie (mail) (www):

Does she assert that female students are not as good at thinking on their feet? Not as good at being assertive in verbal sparring?

The Socratic method is a power play game, like dominance/submission. Submissive people are intimidated.

Maybe there should be "women only" classes in law school. Would they be needed only during the first year? Think of all the additional law profs that would need to be hired....
8.21.2008 7:46pm
Dave N (mail):
Loki13 made a good point (perhaps inadvertently) in defending the Socratic method: "SM is a tool. In the hands of a tool, it is bad tool."

My law school experience was that very few professors were good at the Socratic method. But I acknowledge that I had one or two did it well. I learned quite a bit from the minority who were good at the Socratic method (though not as much as I learned from Ron Boyce, my Crim. Pro. and Evidence professor).
8.21.2008 7:49pm
Alcyoneus (mail):
So...um...why are so many students unprepared and unable to answer questions? How's about you just flunk them after a certain point. Oh, that might hurt law school tuition revenues.
8.21.2008 8:21pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

One problem with the so called Socratic method is that law professors who use it are generally not on par with Socrates.


How about we have the law profs eat hemlock at the end of the semester as their reward.

That was a joke, btw.
8.21.2008 9:01pm
Splunge:
You can't very well do an "experiment" to determine whether the 14th Amendment applies to school segregation, prohibits state universities from adopting affirmative action programs, or governs county-based recounts of presidential ballots.

No doubt. But you could use empirical measurement -- as opposed to airy trains of logic and principle -- to find out whether school segregation, state university affirmative action programs, or county-based recounts of presidential ballots actually serve the needs of real human beings. That's a fact, measureable like any other. Had the law a smidge more respect for the superiority of measured fact over convincing theory, I think it would better serve the needs of people other than lawyers.

Actually, my father (an engineer) opined on many occasions that his favorite science and engineering professors in college used the Socratic method very effectively, especially in "lab" contexts.

An interesting point, and one matched in my experience. I found most undergraduate lab courses to be a waste of time, inasmuch as the actual methods they teach are largely outdated, and the amount of material crammed in is so large that it tends to rule out any serious and thoughtful "Socratic"-like exploration of the way in which one approaches empirical measurement. You have no time to do more than follow directions blindly, for the most part.

My best lab experience, by contrast, was a lovely physics project lab course taught by Henry Kendall, late Nobel laureate, in which students could investigate anything they damn well pleased with the equipment in the lab. Kendall would just go around and sit with each group once a session and talk things over -- what you were doing, what results or nonresults you'd got, what you might do next. Since students picked problems the answers to which no one knew, not even Kendall, he had no superior knowledge of the outcomes -- only of the methods of experimental approach. Hence what we learned from him was, perforce, better methods of asking questions, not how to rationalize or anticipate a known correct answer.

We all gave a mini-seminar at the end of the course. Some of us answered the questions in with which we came. Others, for example the group trying to figure out why the pitch of a struck cup filled with dissolving cocoa or instant coffee rises as the cocoa or coffee dissolves, did not, but learned quite a lot about what was not the answer to their question. (Indeed, one of the best points driven home was the value of a negative experiment, of knowing what was not true.)

It is also the case that the bulk of one's education in experimental techniques, in either science or engineering, does not come from formal coursework, but rather through apprenticeship in a real lab, doing real work, and the quality of the education tends to reflect the ability of the master to impart his insights to the student. This hasn't changed in a thousand years, and probably never will.
8.21.2008 9:14pm
loki13 (mail):
I will second what Dave N said (making this that very rare thread where we are in agreement). My second-best experience came from a Professor that used a combined lecture/take questions format. He made it incredibly engaging, and used student questions to drill into areas of the law that questioners had not (perhaps) expected, and often turned the questions into free-form discussions.

I think that a good teacher makes the format work for them; that said, a student who graduates from law school without having gone through a good SM class is missing out.

Again with the personal anecdote; at my school, my 1L every Professor went out of their way to explain how they were not using the SM to put us at ease and how horrible the SM was (even if they did sneak it in occasionally). When I finally hit SM 2L, I was nailed the first week of class. Despite being completely prepared, the questions asked of me made me re-think my entire approach to reading cases. The question that had me was a simple one- "Why, Mr. X., did the litigant bring this suit?" I had never thought about it, and after being led down the primrose path, I realized that there was a reason for it to be brought that had nothing to with the reasons listed in the casebook or that could be easily divined (the litigant already had the votes to control the organization, and brought the suit to ensure they could scrub a transaction). Anyway . . . if I had just been told that, it would have been a note about the case. Forcing me to think about it that way changed the way I thought about reading cases, and the way I thought about litigation. That was just the first week.

Lectures can teach you the law, and even to love the law. A well-done SM can teach you (here's that phrase) to think like a lawyer.
8.21.2008 9:24pm
Mr. X (www):

WCL, my alma mater, doesn't use the Socratic method, though students are asked to volunteer to summarize cases.


Really? I just graduated from WCL in May and I recall some professors as using the Socratic method (Burke, Rice, some others). It's not universal, but I'm unaware that it's unused. Perhaps that was before my time.
8.21.2008 9:38pm
David Warner:
"Actually, my father (an engineer) opined on many occasions that his favorite science and engineering professors in college used the Socratic method very effectively, especially in "lab" contexts. Instead of answering a question (especially of the "I don't know/don't understand/can't figure out..." genre), they would ask questions until the student discerned the answer himself."

What the instructor is doing here is modeling the problem-solving/decision-making process she employs herself. In answering the questions, the student practices the instructor's process, thereby improving his own. Cognitive research shows that this is a more effective and longer lasting instruction method than pure listening/reading or demonstrations typical of lab work.

Tell < show < do.
8.21.2008 9:47pm
Toby:
I demand that all law professors increase their use of the SM as failing to do so disadvantages men, the very people who will stay in the practice for more than a few years.


Is this logic better or worse than Lani's?
8.21.2008 9:51pm
Splunge:
Yes and no, David Warner. There is one key assumption to your final equation, and that is that each step is done well. Someone lecturing brilliantly, correctly, and understandably does better than someone modeling a disastrously wrongheaded hands-on approach.

My typing instructor in high school -- ha ha, how old am I if I had a typing class in high school? -- used to stand in front of the class and say: Practise makes perfect, right? We were required to contradict him: No, sir! Only perfect practise makes perfect. His point being that diligent practise of the wrong thing does no good at all.

It's a general point others have made above: the quality of the instruction matters far more than the mode, and concomitantly no reselection of mode can compensate for an instructor's inability to teach.
8.21.2008 9:57pm
Javert:

a book by Lani Guinier where she argues that the standard Socratic method disadvantages female students.
But then the "writing method" disadvantages male students. Based on my experience teaching undergrads (20 yrs at top-tier colleges), females as a group are better writers than are the males.

I think some people are confusing the Socratic method with cold calling. The former is the judicious use of purposeful questions, used to determine a student's degree of understanding or to help them recall knowledge that they already possess. E.g.,"So Susie, since you're so passionate about justice, what's your definition of it?" (Usually followed by a blank stare.) Or: "Who can tell me what EV taught you last semester about exceptions to free speech?"

That said, used appropriately, I don't see anything wrong with cold calling. It's simply an in-class version of what used to be a popular form of testing: the oral exam.

Obviously, either method can be misused. The sure sign that a professor is unprepared is when he starts class by saying: "Let's discuss." And I've seen cold calling used by hostile types who got cheap thrills by bullying students.
8.21.2008 10:08pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
My vote is for a modified version for those profs who can do it well, and normal lecture for those who can't. As a 1L, my torts prof was good at it, and my contracts prof was bad, though far more experienced as a prof. The rest used more lecture and occasional cold calling for single questions.

The highlight of my 1L year was when I was able to survive for five minutes about half way through my second term of torts. From that point on, law school was downhill all the way.

For me, the hide-the-ball was mostly silly. Yes, you need to be able to dig out the issues, but that can be taught other ways (and indeed is). But thinking quickly on your (figurative) feet and being able to stand up to someone who can push you hard is essential to being a lawyer. Even transaction lawyers have to do this, and if you ever get before a judge, you had better be able to do at least a passable job.

That women, on average, are not as good at this as men are is really just saying that women, on average, are not as well suited for the practice of law as men, on average, are. I didn't say that, but apparently Lani Guinier does. And, I find it interesting that lawyers such as Guinier who are good in this way, would suggest its irrelevance in the practice of law.

I was always amazed during law school that a lot of women, and even some men, actually thought that it was unfair and mean to make them act like lawyers during law school. It was almost as if they believed that a judge would cut them extra slack because of their sex.

Let me also point out that even the modified Socratic method that I advocate does not really prepare you for the reality of life in this profession. My wake up call was in a jury trial, where opposing counsel would object, then when the jury was out of the room, explode at some imagined ethical lapse of mine. About the third time he did this, I realized that this was his modus operandi. But trying to argue logically while being attacked like this emotionally and professionally is hard. Luckily for me, the judge knew the lawyer and his tricks, knew that I was a novice, and gave me credit for doing as well as I did (and almost gleefully granted most of my motion for a directed verdict). The next time this was tried on me, it was in the big city, and I thanked my lucky stars that I had experienced it the first time in such a situation as I had.

I have run into bullies throughout the practice of law, whether in litigation (esp. from the bench) or transaction work. It isn't just bullies, but rather, that they are some of the worst. If you can't handle getting verbally assaulted, then the practice of law is not for you (but maybe you can teach it).
8.22.2008 12:14am
Virginian:
My torts professor was nearly deaf, so the questioning often went like this:


Prof: Mr. Smith, did the court find proximate cause existed in this case?

Mr. Smith: no

Prof: Correct! Yes, the court did find proximate cause existed!
8.22.2008 10:40am