Monday, September 19, 2005

More Thoughts on the so-called "Socratic" Method

A law professor elsewhere writes:

I've read your comments on the Socratic method with interest. I'm using what I guess qualifies as modified Socratic or something, and thought I'd tell you why and see what your thoughts are.

As a foundational matter, I agree that it's an inefficient way of imparting information, and I tell them that up front. I do think it is one good way of getting people to be able to create legal arguments more intuitively than they might be able to otherwise. I'm certain there are other ways -- as you note, lawyers around the world somehow do it without this sort of training -- but the fact that there are other ways doesn't mean it doesn't work, of course.

With that:

My school has a serious problem with students not spending appropriate amounts of time and effort preparing.  Part of that is, I think, a cultural issue with the law school: much of our faculty is so focused on having the students consider them friendly that there is little downside in being unprepared (except, of course, at exam time). And if a significant proportion of the class isn't preparing well, it's not even that big a hit at exam time, since we have a fairly strict curve.

So I use cold calling and some component of Socratic questioning as an incentive to be prepared. I am told by students that I stay with unprepared students longer than most other people here, though I feel like I'm quite gentle. Very little of the dialogue component is the routine facts/holding/etc., instead focusing more on what you mention as reasonable -- questions in the casebook, other hypotheticals, etc.

But I *do* have them go through the basics as a way to try to be sure they have the basics.

I'm focusing on this approach more this year than last year and I think it's paying dividends. I've consistently had fairly high standards on my expectations and tell people (outside of class) when they haven't met them (and I think it's clear in class as well), and the level of preparation seems to be improving, both compared to earlier in the semester and compared to last year.

Perhaps this is a bigger issue here than places like Texas. But I do think it is, for the students I'm teaching, a useful tool in getting them to prepare when other approaches seem to fail. I of course would rather have an institutional culture that simply expects preparation for its own sake but the combination of the faculty approach and the students we have seems to make that difficult.

I should note that I'm not intending to criticize the students. I'm generally quite impressed by their abilities. I simply think they are largely not coming from undergraduate backgrounds that have had as rigorous expectations as, for example, my classmates at [name of top law school omitted]. 

They have the ability but don't seem to have the expectation that they need to do the reading carefully and slowly. Perhaps the Socratic method (or some form of it anyway) has a place in changing that expectation.


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That's not exactly the Socratic method. Sounds to me like you're just expecting informed participaton There's much to be said for coldcalling, in a non-intimidating manner. And some quasi-Socratic techniques, I think, are useful -- challenge students with differences in hypotheticals that illustrate what differences matter.

I'll be interested in Brian's thoughts but my gripes with the Socratic method are (a) the Professor as God approach, (b) the focus on picayune matters, possibly important in practice, but that have great opportunity costs for full understanding, and (c) the refusal to provide closure on any issues, refusing to give any answers that let students move on to the next issue, feeling that they have a basic undersanding. I could probably come up with more.

Posted by: frankcross | Sep 19, 2005 4:07:27 PM

I think the main source of confusion surrounding the use of the Socratic method is that students [and some teachers] think it's intended to impart information. It's not. If the goal is imparting information, Brian is absolutely right that a lecture is far better. The justification for Socratic dialogue, rather, is that it's intended to impart skills and linguistic competence -- and the cliche "thinking like a lawyer" is shorthand for this.

When I explain the Socratic method to my students, I point out to them that mastery of such skills cannot be acquired by listening to a lecture, even one given by an expert. Those who have studied mathematics understand the need to work problems and do proofs; those who have studied languages understand the need to converse and to recite. Socratic discussion is merely a form of supervised, directed, group practice.

That's not to say that every practitioner of the method is competent, and I don't deny that it would be very helpful to have all this backed up by empirical research on pedagogy [or that the conventional defenses are all mixed up with authoritarian mystification]. But the idea that one can do it all or even mostly with lecture is just plain wrongheaded.

Posted by: Avery Katz | Sep 19, 2005 4:09:09 PM

Avery Katz is surely right that the Socratic method is supposed to impart skills and linguistic competence. I am not aware, though, of any evidence that it does so. The fact that philosophers acquire very similar skills (at argument and counter-argument) without Socratic method at least shows that the Socratic method isn't necessary for the acquisition of the skills. The deeper worry is that it may actually impede the acquisition of both skills and information.

Of course, individuals' learning styles differ. Many philosophers learn the skills of rigorous argumentation and analysis by having them modelled in lectures, and then through informal practice with fellow students. No doubt there are some individuals who will learn those skills more successfully from a different method of instruction. An important question, then, would be about the relevant proportions of these different styles of learning in the population attending law school.

Posted by: BL | Sep 19, 2005 4:20:20 PM

Avery Katz is surely right that the Socratic method is supposed to impart skills and linguistic competence. I am not aware, though, of any evidence that it does so.

Except there is some fairly good science on how to teach the skills at issue, and some good research. Most student's oral skills go down hill in law school.

The deeper worry is that it may actually impede the acquisition of both skills and information. which was confirmed by the last survey of the literature that I read.

Ever since I read BL's comments on PhD training being useful, I've been struck by the fact that the basic minimum level to be a law professor and use the socratic method is the same as is required to be a first year associate.

Ask yourself what you would trust a first (or a second or a third) year associate to do unsupervised or untrained.

Ask yourself how much you would trust a third year law student as a TA to get right without help or supervision?

I think that Brian is right. At least this one time.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Sep 19, 2005 4:27:35 PM

BTW, worth looking at:

Cathaleen A. Roach, A River Runs Through It, 36 Arizona Law Review 667 (1994)


M. Kristine Knapland and Richard H. Sander, The Art and Science of Academic Support, Journal of Legal Education Vol 45, No. 2 (June 1995)

I am obviously behind on the literature, time passes when you aren't having fun ... and now I'm busy with other things.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Sep 19, 2005 4:34:57 PM

As a current law student, I wonder what professors who use the socratic method in its traditional style are actually attempting to accomplish.

I do not see how 95% of the discussion in class is applicable to success on an exam. Is there any doubt that interrogation based on minutia out of the casebook adds nothing to a student's ability to analyze facts in a lawyerlike manner?

I come to class prepared to discuss the relevant topics and have no problem with mandatory class participation--but why spend so much time in class reinforcing the urge to memorize-and-regurgitate information (or wax poetic endlessly about policy--often to absurd proportions) when it would be so easy to foster analytical development in a more productive way?

Posted by: KR | Sep 19, 2005 5:32:43 PM

The comments to this post illustrate the problem with attempts to generalize about the pedagogical value of the Socratic Method. Different practitioners and observers of the method cannot agree on what the method entails, and it can be difficult to distinguish bad teaching methodologies from bad implementation of good methodologies.

My own view is that a teaching method that includes extensive questioning of students can induce rigorous thinking and develop useful problem-solving skills. This view assumes, of course, that the professor is asking well-designed questions and appropriately engaging the responses.

So if Brian's point is that many practioners of the Socratic Method are incapable of implementing it with sufficient skill to justify the effort, than I might agree. But if his point is that there is no conceivable way to implement anything resembling the Socratic Method with sufficient skill to justify departing from a lecture format, then I disagree.

Posted by: AnonJrProf | Sep 19, 2005 6:48:37 PM

"And if a significant proportion of the class isn't preparing well, it's not even that big a hit at exam time, since we have a fairly strict curve." (hmm, the blog use of italics doesn't work as the html gets stripped from posts).

That is an important point. A strict curve conceals a great deal about how much relative and absolute learning is going on. As a result, teaching methods that actually interfere with learning do not seem to have any impact on getting tenure, etc. But I'm always amazed that less than a week of a bar review class ends up teaching many students more than they learned in four semester hours of graduate level study.

And none of the review class material follows the socratic method, nor do CLE (continuing legal education) classes for practicing lawyers and judges. I guess programs for law professors use it to teach the professors ...

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Sep 20, 2005 7:32:15 AM

At the very least, the Socratic method is probably ideal training for oral argument in court. In effect, the Socratic method _is_ oral argument. Stand in one place and get hammered from all sides on wacky nuances of the case and its arguments. (Whether oral argument need changing is another topic altogether, but the similarities between the two practices are far too great for this to be coincidence).

At one time, lawyers spent more time in court than they do now. It's an open question whether training for oral argument is a good pedagogical tool in law schools now, since oral argument is about 1% of what any given practicing lawyer is likely to actually do. (And people who want to focus on it can take classes like trial advocacy).

It's by no means clear to me that a torts class should worry about molding a student into an oral advocate, rather than simply teaching her torts.

Posted by: Kaimi | Sep 20, 2005 6:16:56 PM


There are much better ways to teach oral argument. What about ten person small section classes, about two semester hours worth, for one semester?

Prepare, present, video, critique, rinse and repeat (six hours of time a week). You could do a lot with that and really learn some useful skills.

Spend the class time teaching and learning.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Sep 22, 2005 11:02:14 AM

In my entire 3 years of law school, I was only called on once. Many times, the professors did not call on me even when I raised my hand. As a result, I did not receive the same benefit from Socratic education as some of my classmates, which is something that I regret. (I am Cornell Law class of 1988). Socratic is fine, but the benefits accrue to its victims, er, subjects. It should be used evenhandedly.

Posted by: Carolyn Elefant | Sep 23, 2005 6:40:21 PM

In response to some of Frank's concerns about the so-called traditional Socratic method, I want to point out that the 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. While I am in agreement with Avery that the purpose of the Socratic method is to teach a skill rather than to impart facts, the history demonstrates that the law school classroom does not have to be an either/or proposition.

Posted by: Emily Kadens | Sep 24, 2005 10:04:47 AM

"Of course, individuals' learning styles differ."

I tell my (community college) students, "there are many ways up the mountain."

I only had one Prof. at Temple U (Strazella) who was hardcore Socratic (never gave answers, only asked questions, like Kingsfield) and got by with an outline I got from my brother.

Plenty of Professors however, "called" on students to elicit information about cases and see if the students could explain the holding and the reasoning (more of a "softer-Socratic" style). Eventually the teacher would reiterate the students' answers (or correct the students' wrong answers) explaining things right.

Thus, you were supposed to be prepared. However, I never found "being prepared" (having done the assigned readings) to be a particularly efficient way of learing for me. If I get bored by reading, my concentration easily slips (I was never so diagnosed; but I'm sure I could easily have gotten the ADHD diagnoses). For me, I need to write something to really learn it.

My best way of learning was simply showing up to every class on time (in many instances, unprepared) and taking down everything that the teacher said like a courtroon stenographer and then typing it up into an outline. (And then memorizing the outline before the Exam). I got all As and Bs, using this method in a decent lawschool (Temple) with a 2.85 curve.

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Sep 26, 2005 10:41:07 AM

My civil procedure prof went crazy and vacated the law school over Christmas break and Carl Hawkins took over the class. He had never taught civil pro before, and so just taught the material.

I rememember one class, he spent fifteen minutes on res judicata, etc., making it seem very simple.

The bar review class spent over an hour and did not cover it as well or as clearly.

I've won about fifteen cases on that point of law (and lost one, sigh) and every time everyone else found the law to be very complicated while it seemed very simple to me. But it was all a result of a simple, direct lecture on the law.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Sep 29, 2005 4:57:46 PM

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