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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.

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