Tag Archives | Socratic Method

How Common is the Socratic Method?

In a recent post, Orin expresses doubts about whether the “traditional” form of the Socratic method is still used in many law schools. If by “traditional form” he means something like what is portrayed in The Paper Chase, I agree that not many use it. Very few lawprofs are as obnoxious as the mythical Professor Kingsfield. But, in my experience of teaching at three different US law schools over the last six years, a large number of professors do still use the Socratic Method in the sense of spending the bulk of their class time cold-calling on students and asking them questions about legal doctrine. A recent report on The Faculty Lounge blog states that most entry-level candidates on the lawprof job market say that they intend to use “soft Socratic” method as their primary teaching tool, by which they mean that they “like to create a welcoming atmosphere in the classroom where students feel free to participate, but also be sufficiently rigorous in calling on students to ensure that everyone is prepared.” To the extent that it still involves large amounts of cold-calling (as in most cases it does), “soft” Socratic method has many of the same shortcomings as the “hard” version. I discuss some of those problems here and here.

I don’t claim that all law professors should completely abjure all aspects of SM; I use some elements of it myself. For example, I have students sign up to be “on call” a couple times during the semester, when I assign myself the right to call on them involuntarily. But I only devote a minority of the class time to this activity, and don’t use SM at all in classes with fewer than 30 or 35 people. The optimal level of SM probably varies from [...]

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Why Tradition Does Not Justify the Socratic Method

One of the standard defenses of the Socratic method, which I criticized in my last post and here, is adherence to tradition. If American lawprofs have been using the method for decades, there must be something to it. Who are we to question the approach that worked so well for Professor Kingsfield?

I am generally skeptical of the “Burkean conservative” case for traditionalism. But I do recognize that voluntarily adopted (as opposed to coercively imposed) traditions have some value and may be entitled to a measure of deference. Perhaps the Socratic method is an example of this kind of tradition. No one forced lawprofs to use it, and law students could potentially have chosen to attend schools that don’t use it – a preference they might have imposed on lawprofs through market pressure. On other hand, the AALS [update: should have said ABA] certification cartel diminishes competition in the market for legal education and makes it much harder for new schools to enter the field and gain a competitive edge by emphasizing novel teaching methods.

In any event, the tradition-based argument for the Socratic method fails even on its own terms. It ignores the fact that virtually every academic discipline other than law has a long tradition of not using the Socratic method. That includes professors who teach courses on legal issues in political science, economics, history, and philosophy departments. Similarly, the Socratic method isn’t generally used by law professors in other countries, including other Anglophone common law jurisdictions such as Britain, Canada, and Australia. There is no reason to believe that either non-law classes in the US or legal education abroad suffers because they don’t inflict SM on their students. Nor is there any significant movement to adopt the Socratic method in any of these [...]

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Teaching to Different Learning Styles in Law School

By nature, I am a highly verbal, nonvisual person. I learn best by reading books or listening to lectures. I rarely benefit from looking at tables, charts, pictures, and the like. I’m the kind of guy who can’t drive to an unfamiliar destination without a detailed mapquest itinerary telling me exactly which turns to take; otherwise, I’m sure to get lost. This learning style is hardly unusual for a law professor, or indeed for most humanities and social science academics (with the exception of those who regularly use quantitative methods in their work). Unfortunately, when teaching, we lawprofs often assume that all the students have the same learning style as we do. Most of the time, we operate either in pure lecture mode or use the Socratic method. Yet at least some of the students are not like us. They may be visual learners, or otherwise diverge from the pure oral learning style. For visual learners, it helps to have handouts, tables, graphs and other tools that go beyond oral lecturing. Yet, in my experience, many law professors either don’t use these at all, or only do so very rarely.

The traditional law school reliance on the the Socratic method, which I criticized on other grounds in this series of posts, is part of the problem. Many professors and students assume that it is the only correct way of teaching law classes, especially large intro courses, and therefore don’t bother with anything else. Not only is SM a purely oral method of teaching, it is a particularly difficult one for non-oral learners to follow. Even for the orally gifted, it is often hard to pick out the really important information from the morass of indeterminate questions posed by the instructor and often flawed answers given by the student [...]

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