Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On the History of the Socratic Method

Interesting remarks posted by my colleague Emily Kadens in an earlier thread deserve a wider audience:

[T]he Socratic method as it has been used since about the 1940s is not how it was originally designed by Langdell and James Barr Ames. Originally, the professor used Socratic method to get the students to test whether the rule given in a case could be extended to fit other fact patterns--in other words, hypotheticals and exactly what the students will have to do as lawyers. But instead of just tying the students up in knots and leaving them in the dark about the rules, the professors would spend the last ten minutes or so of the class lecturing--actually dictating--an outline of the blackletter law. We can tell this from student notes--they took notes in the margins of their casebooks from the Socratic portion and well-organized notes in notebooks from the lecture portion--as well as from descriptions of the Socratic method coming from the first 30 or 40 years of its use. Over time, generations trained in the Socratic method emphasized the questioning part to the exclusion of the lecturing part, the idea, apparently, being that all that was needed was for the students to struggle with the material and the rest of the stuff would just fall into place if they paid sufficient attention to analyzing the cases.

http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2005/09/on_the_history_.html

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