Saturday, February 16, 2008

Is the Socratic Method Hiding in Your Closet?

Putting aside the overstatement of a title like “Best Practices for Legal Education,” this book is no doubt motivated by good intentions and includes many good, albeit often obvious, ideas. I was cruising along reading it and agreeing with most until I hit the chapter on “delivering instruction.” Even there I wholeheartedly agree that law schools undervalue instruction. At that point, however, the favorite strawman of many law profs – the Socratic method -- comes into play and I found myself not just disagreeing with the premise of this chapter but wondering if other chapters were as poorly anchored to reality.

Let’s start with this: “Although a teacher can harm students using any method of instruction; complaints about classroom abuse of students primarily involve the Socratic method and case analysis.” I am a bit thrown by the word “abuse” in world in which people really do suffer abuse and whether "complaints" necessarily mean ineffectiveness. But mainly I wonder where all the Socratic teachers are.

I went through 3 years of law school in the late 1970s. I had one teacher who could be called Socratic and if any one left that classed harmed it was because he or she came into the class with an open wound. Since then I have sat in on way too many classes to remember and did not witness one person using anything thing close to the Socratic method. I did see some people using a “fill in the blank” style of teaching and others who called for non volunteers once in awhile. I have also witnessed very short exchanges that were quickly ended if a student showed any sign of discomfort. For the most part, the teachers seemed far more afraid of hurting someone’s feelings than the students did that their feelings would be hurt. Come on! Can we give up this Socratic-method-as-the-root-of-all-teaching-evils nonsense? It may exist but it is extremely rare. In fact, later in Best Practices the authors suggest reducing the reliance on Socratic dialogue. Huh??? How do you give up what hardly exists? Moreover the studies the authors rely on to document the woes of the Socratic Method are thin and much of this section of the book seems to be based on the opinions of those who seem predisposed to dislike the Socratic method regardless of its effectiveness if, in fact, it were actually practiced.

This is not to say that I disagree with everything in this section of the book. If fact, quite the opposite. On the other hand, if anyone is serious about increasing the effectiveness of law teaching the least useful beginning point is to hammer, for the trillionth time, the Socratic Method. That beginning point just suggests laziness with respect to examining what actually goes on in law school classrooms. A far better starting point for Best Practices would have been a serious study of today's classrooms. Unfortunately, as is so often true in legal scholarship, the test of the truth and accuracy of a point seems to lie whether the assertion can be found in print somewhere.

In the classes I have been in and observed, the factor I have seen as most damaging to effective law teaching is low expectations by professors. Consistently I have heard them say “That’s good but could someone expand on that” to a completely wrong answer or an off the wall comment. And I have seem students get the most basic facts of a case wrong and the teacher fill it in for him or her. The clearest message is “sloppy work is OK.” When sloppy work is OK with the professor it is, in fact, a limitation the professor places on student development.


Blogger Jason Wojciechowski said...

Thank you for talking about this. The amount of atrocious teaching I've been thought in law school has been astounding. You mention two culprits, fill-in-the-blank and congratulating poor performance, and I can think of at least one more: straight lecture all day every day of basic doctrine.

None of these things are helping students become better critical thinkers or helping them understand the underpinnings of the doctrine in a sophisticated way (anyone who gets into law school can memorize rules -- and if that's not true, then there are too many law schools!).

I wonder if fill-in-the-blank is perhaps the worst, because the professor actually thinks he (it's invariably been a "he" -- my female teachers have all been quite good) is teaching Socratically and thus engaging and developing the students' minds! At least the straight lecturer makes no pretense.

2/16/2008 7:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I was writing a "Best Practices" guide for blogging, it would include a recommendation that for reasons of basic fairness and decency, when you criticize someone, you give them notice and a chance to respond. One way to accomplish this is to link to that person's blog. Since the post did not do that, this comment will:
See also:

2/16/2008 11:09 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Thanks "anonymous." I guess I do not understand how including a link to someone else's blog gives them a chance to respond. Generally those who express themselves publically in a blog are not looking to avoid controversy. Except for commentators who remain "anonymous," if there is anything Moneylaw stands for it is a fair exchange of all ideas and I am delighted and honored whenever someone finds something in one of my posts that stirs them to respond positively or negatively.

2/17/2008 9:25 AM  
Blogger Robert Justin Lipkin said...

Two three points: (1) This is an important discussion. Congratulations! (2) Not to be pedantic, but the so-called "Socratic method" is a misnomer. True, Socrates posed questions and criticized answers, but his method is based on the conviction that his students already knew the answers to his question, and he was merely, helping them to see what they already knew. Of course, this conviction is based on Plato's conception of epistemology and ontology. Unfortunately, pace Socrates, we cannot assume our students know very much at all. (3) After also observing a legion of young teachers, I agree that there's an unfortunately tendency to congratulate students even when their remarks are completely wrong. That's not good to be sure. But the culprit is, in part, the role teaching evaluations play in today's academy. Untenured teachers, and even some tenured ones, feel the need to pander to students in order to receive the "appropriate" level of evaluation scores to get tenure and promotion. My goodness, in today's legal academy, Kingsfield would be pilloried and tarred and feathered.

2/17/2008 9:54 AM  
Anonymous shg said...

I smell a big shock coming for them li'l boys and girls when the judge doesn't think they're anywhere near as smart as their lawprofs (and mommies) told them.

So have the lawprofs dumbed it down, become dumbed down, or are just a bunch o' pansies, afraid that they won't get the corner paneled office if the boys and girls don't like them?

2/17/2008 10:57 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Thanks for the comments. I think it has be dumbed down and that teaching evaluations play a role. It seems like the best way for the Best Practices authors to assess teaching is to actually study how law teaching is conducted and then assess the impact of evaluations on teaching.

2/17/2008 1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Best Practices book can be downloaded free of charge here:
The purpose of the book was to spark discussion and reflection about teaching.

2/18/2008 7:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about the teaching evaluation point--my favorite teachers in law school both were women who cold-called on us, partly because in those classes I and the rest of the class did the reading and the discussion was a little more rigorous. I've had good results with what's been misnamed the socratic method myself--of course you shouldn't torture people, and you should make them feel ok if their answers are wrong (unless they reveal failure to do the reading), but I think cold calling results in better class discussion and a more engaged class than waiting for volunteers.

2/26/2008 4:26 PM  

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