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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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The Case for Diversity in Teaching Styles: I wanted to follow up Ilya's post on the Socratic Method with a slightly different thought: From the standpoint of a law student, isn't the ideal to experience a wide range of different teaching styles?

  When I was a student, I had terrific experiences with Socratic teaching; my most Socratic professors really taught me to think like a lawyer. On the other hand, I learned a lot from professors who lectured, too. Lecturing profs shed light on the nature of the legal system in ways that Socratic dialogue didn't capture very well. I also learned from other styles, whether mixing and matching or other approaches. In my experience, different styles worked for different courses and different professors, and a range of styles led to the most engaging and educational experience. (The only approach that didn't work for me was "group problem solving," as the main problem the group tried to solve usually was where to go out next weekend).

  If I'm right, we shouldn't be asking whether the Socratic Method is good or bad in the abstract. The better question is what teaching style works best for a particular professor and course in light of the other teaching styles students will experience over the course of law school.
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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.

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The Socratic Method and "Thinking Like a Lawyer":

Many defend the use of the Socratic method in law school classes on the grounds that it teaches students to "think like a lawyer." There is some merit to this point, though I think it is greatly overstated, for reasons Steve Bainbridge discusses here. It is useful for lawyers to be able to think on their feet, answer difficult questions posed in an oral argument, and so on. At the same time, it's important to realize that classroom SM is only vaguely similar to the work of most real-world lawyers. Transactional lawyers rarely confront SM-like situations at all. And even many litigators spend far more time doing research or writing briefs and motions than answering questions at an oral argument. Nonetheless, SM can help hone advocacy skills that many lawyers will find useful.

But the fact that SM conveys some useful skills doesn't mean that it should be employed in all or most classes. Most law schools have specialized courses devoted to trial practice, oral advocacy, brief writing, and other advocacy skills. It's not necessary for those skills to also be taught in classes where the principal objective is to master a particular body of law. To the contrary, it is usually best if the law school curriculum exploits the benefits of specialization.

Professors whose main expertise is in the subject matter of a given body of law can best serve their students by teaching what they know best, without diverting class time to the teaching of advocacy skills in which they are less expert (if they have any expertise at all). Those who specialize in advocacy skills (e.g. - many clinical faculty), by contrast, can teach courses specifically focused on those subjects. Even if a particular professor has great facility with both a given field of substantive law and advocacy skills, it doesn't necessarily follow that he should teach both in the same course. He might serve the students better if he teaches one class solely devoted to the former and another focusing on the latter.

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What Does It Mean to "Think Like a Lawyer"? And How Does The Socratic Method Help?: In his latest post, Ilya offers the following take on how the Socratic Method can help a person "think like a lawyer," and how much it matters:
It is useful for lawyers to be able to think on their feet, answer difficult questions posed in an oral argument, and so on. At the same time, it's important to realize that classroom SM is only vaguely similar to the work of most real-world lawyers. Transactional lawyers rarely confront SM-like situations at all. And even many litigators spend far more time doing research or writing briefs and motions than answering questions at an oral argument. Nonetheless, SM can help hone advocacy skills that many lawyers will find useful.
  I think Ilya and I have a very different sense of what it means to "think like a lawyer." In my view, thinking like a lawyer has little to do with thinking on your feet, answering questions orally, or advocacy skills. Nor does the Socratic Method teach these skills very well.

  Rather, "thinking like a lawyer" means having a brain that focuses on what is legally relevant and that puts aside what is not. Legal thinking is a practical art that relies on a set of principles and relationships, and a person thinks like a lawyer when they master that practical art.

  The purpose of the Socratic Method is to ask students the legally relevant questions (and in some cases, to show why the legally irrelevant questions are legally irrelevant) in order to train them to ask themselves those questions when they read cases and legal materials on their own. Put another way, the method pushes students to internalize a way of thinking: The repeated raising of a specific type of questions in class trains students to ask themselves those questions out of class.

  In my view, the Socratic Method doesn't require a professor to "hide the ball" or preclude some lecturing about doctrine. It can be done that way, but it doesn't have to be. Rather, I think the root of the method is creating an environment in which students in a large class feel sufficiently engaged in the material (often aided by the possibility of being called on) so that they try to answer the professor's questions for themselves. After a while, they can predict where the professor will go; they can ask the professor's questions without the professor. As Phil Areeda wrote:
The student sees that he could have asked himself those questions before class; that the kinds of questions the instructor asked can be self-posed after class. The internalization of that questioning process is not an illusion. It is the essence of legal reasoning and the prize [of the Socratic Method].
Phillip E. Areeda, The Socratic Method (SM) (Lecture at Puget Sound, 1/31/90), 109 Harv. L. Rev. 911 (1996).
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The Socratic Method and "Thinking Like a Lawyer" Revisited:

In his latest post, Orin argues that the Socratic method can teach students to "think like a lawyer" in ways different from those I discussed in my post on the subject. He suggests that:

I think Ilya and I have a very different sense of what it means to "think like a lawyer." In my view, thinking like a lawyer has little to do with thinking on your feet, answering questions orally, or advocacy skills. Nor does the Socratic Method teach these skills very well.

Rather, "thinking like a lawyer" means having a brain that focuses on what is legally relevant and that puts aside what is not. Legal thinking is a practical art that relies on a set of principles and relationships, and a person thinks like a lawyer when they master that practical art.

Orin is absolutely right that lawyers need to be able to identify what is "legally relevant" in a reading, and that the Socratic method can sometimes help teach that skill. At the same time, I see little that is unique to law about this ability. In studying almost any field that involves reading written material, students have to be able to separate out what is relevant to their studies from that which is not. I focused on advocacy skills in my previous post because those are more clearly specific to law and because many advocates of SM (though not, apparently, Orin) claim that it helps teach them.

That said, Orin is right that effective use of SM can help students identify legally relevant material in their readings. The question is whether it can achieve this goal better than alternative teaching methods, while also achieving the objective of getting them to understand the substantive field of law the class is supposed to be covering. In my view, most of the time other teaching methods will be more effective in achieving both objectives because less class time is wasted on answers by students who may be poorly prepared and because of the problems caused by "hiding the ball." Professors in other fields that require students to identify what is relevant in complex written material seem to do just fine without resorting to SM. The same goes for law professors in virtually every country other than the United States. For me, as for Brian Leiter, it is telling that teachers in these other fields and countries feel no need to resort to SM, and most clearly believe that the skill of separating out relevant from irrelevant can be better taught in other ways.

I don't think that SM is always and inevitably worse than alternative teaching methods. As I suggested here, full-blown SM may be the best method for a few professors, and moderate SM can often be useful as a supplement to other approaches. Nonetheless, I don't believe that SM is an especially good way of learning how to separate out the relevant from the irrelevant.

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