The Socratic Method and Diversity in Teaching Styles:

There is much that I agree with in Orin's post advocating diversity in teaching styles. Certainly, Orin is right that no one teaching method is optimal for every professor and every class. Much depends on the professor's personality and on the subject matter covered. That's why in my original post expressing doubts about the Socratic method, I didn't advocate its total abolition, merely reducing its use. I also don't think that there's any one alternative that should replace the Socratic method across the board. I myself incorporate some elements of SM in my large survey classes, though in a limited fashion.

At the same time, I think that full-blown SM has systematic weaknesses that are likely to bedevil most professors who try it. Among the most important are 1) wasting of class time on flawed answers by students who are poorly prepared or simply make mistakes, 2) "hiding the ball," which makes it difficult for students to grasp the material covered (especially if it is complex or counterintuitive), and 3) the danger of creating an atmosphere of tension and antagonism between the students and the professor. It is telling that Socrates himself made the method work in a setting where he usually taught no more than a handful of students at a time, didn't have a large, detailed body of knowledge that he needed to convey to them, and enjoyed the luxury of virtually unlimited "class" time (his students were young Athenian aristocrats with plenty of leisure time). Modern academics teaching survey courses to large classes under tight time constraints aren't so fortunate.

Can a particularly skilled practitioner (perhaps Orin himself) overcome these grave disadvantages and still teach an excellent class using SM? Most likely yes. But I think only rarely will it be the best method available. Even some of those professors who can do well with SM might do even better with another approach.

Jay Myers:
Socrates is usually depicted using elenchos to cause his interlocutor to doubt what they had previously believed that they knew, which is negative knowledge. Perhaps the only instance where this clearly leads to someone gaining positive knowledge is the case of the slave boy in the Meno who is taught some geometry.
8.22.2008 4:14am
corneille1640 (mail):
Good point: it goes a long way to explaining why people accuse those who use the Socratic method of "hiding the ball."

I'd also say that Socrates' "interlocutors" could scarcely get a word in edgewise.
8.22.2008 8:22am
M (mail):
To build a bit on Jay above, it's perhaps relevant that Plato has a theory of learning that seems to make Socratic dialog an appropriate teaching tool. Pretty much no one would think today, though, that Plato's theory of learning or knowledge is at all plausible and this in turn ought to make us more doubtful that Socratic questioning is a good way of teaching people things.
8.22.2008 9:03am

1) wasting of class time on flawed answers by students who are poorly prepared or simply make mistakes

This assumes that there's no value in being presented with, and having refuted, a wrong answer. I think the explanation of WHY an answer is wrong can teach more than simply presenting the right answer, and just as much as presenting why an answer is right.
8.22.2008 10:05am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Maybe it's time for law schools to consider adopting that radical new innovation that's been sweeping the rest of academia lately, known as the "tutorial"...
8.22.2008 12:12pm