Friday, October 01, 2004

Is the Socratic Method Effective?

I’d say I agree with about 80% of what Brain Leiter writes when he argues that the Socratic method is not necessarily the best teaching method. Although it depends on what is meant by the “Socratic method.” I would agree that the “hard” Socratic method, ala Kingsfield in The Paper Chase is not a good idea. By this we mean the professor only asks questions and supplies no answers (the professor completely hides the ball). The students supply the answers which invariably lead to other questions by the professor and the students are supposed to be able to “figure out” the rules or the “black letter law” by the question and answer process. Only one professor at law school did this as strictly as Kingsfield (my Criminal law prof.) and another professor seemed to be this strict about one half of the time. Just about all of the other professors employed more of what I call the “soft” Socratic method style, which I do think is quite an effective way to teach. And that is when the professor attempts to first elicit the answers from the students but then ends up, either, if the student got it right, reiterating what the student said, (or at least that part of what the student said that the professor wants us to learn), or if the student didn’t exactly get it, clarifying or correcting the student’s answers. The students essentially need to wait for the professor, to “give them the goods.”

It’s true it takes a little more time to drive the point home. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, Leiter reproduces a student email who complained, “it just takes forever to get to the point, wastes a lot of time on poorly thought out responses, and so on.” But as long as the professor eventually gets to the point and articulates it well, that’s all we need (but the “hard” Socratic professors never really let you know what the correct answer is—that’s not effective teaching in my opinion).

But what if the teacher just got up there and lectured—just rattled off a lot of black letter law without the interaction with the class? They might be able to compact three times as many legal rules into the same lecture, but this also runs the possibility that the students will be given too much, too fast, and much of it won’t sink in, (or without the interaction, the students will just zone off and not pay as hard attention).

With the Q & A interactiveness of a soft Socratic method, the students’ interests first gets piqued, they begin to wonder what the answer really is as the professor attempts to elicit the right answer from the class, and then the professor gives it to them, satisfying that interest. Yes, it takes longer, but it also will sink in better than if the professor just got up there and rattled a bunch of rules off without calling on students.

I myself use a very (very!) soft Socratic method when I teach my community college students (and believe me, if any students are susceptible to confusion, it’s them). If I just got up there and talked and gave them rules with out any interaction, they’d all zone out. So what I try to do is ask questions, elicit answers from the class, and if they don’t give me the right answers (or if they don’t participate at all) then I explain the rule as they need to learn it (the rule is usually written on a handout that I give to them anyway). Or even if they do give the right answer, I still end up reiterating the proper answer (I can usually explain it more articulately—plus, being pedantic, or redundant, i.e., reiterating what has already been said IS a very effective and needed teaching method for community college students. You really really need to drive the point home. Some people have said that my writing style is too redundant. It’s probably a force of habit from teaching at community colleges).

Employing a Q&A teaching method is a way of livening up the class. I could just get up there and rattle off the answers in 15 or 20 minutes for what would otherwise take 50 minutes—but as I said, it takes time for these rules to sink in and the “call and response/ question and answer” method gives that extra time that is needed to drive the point home .

Leiter offers evidence as to why “the Socratic method is a pedagogical disaster.”

1) law students have complained so often for so long about teaching in law schools, that there is now an official lore and vocabulary to describe their frustrations with the pedagogy: e.g., law professors "hide the ball," but then they want "black letter law" on the exams, and so on.

This is true. But I found by carefully listening to most professors’ lectures, they would eventually get around to giving the black letter law. When taking notes in class, I wouldn’t take down the answers that students gave. Rather I’d take down everything that the professor said. The professor asks a question—take it down. The student provides an answer—rest your hand. The professor reiterates or clarifies or corrects the students’ answer—take it down. And that’s where you get the black letter law or otherwise how the law is supposed to apply to the facts. By using this method I was able to construct whole outlines, without the use of commercial outlines, full of black letter law. Often I would need commercial outlines to “fill in the gaps” when I wasn’t paying close enough attention (in other words, the gaps were most often my fault, not the professors').

(2) there is an enormous and lucrative industry of "commercial outlines" which teach law students the material that is being covered in their "Socratically taught" classes. These commercial outlines give the students answers: the holdings of the cases, the reasoning, the standard criticisms of the reasoning, etc. If the Socratic method were really an effective way to teach students law, why would almost all law students (including the very best ones) turn to commercial outlines? The obvious answer is: they don't learn the material effectively from the Socratic method.

Again, this is true. Those outlines can be very helpful in explaining or clarifying the black letter law that we ultimately had to learn for the exam. I used to use them for preparing for class (instead of reading the cases) and for preparing for the exam. And of course, the professors thought they were “poisonous” because we don’t learn how to “think like lawyers” when we rely on commercial outlines. As Leiter notes, this sentiment, of course is bullshit. If you can rely on outlines and get a good grade (as many did and still do), then they are useful and effective, period. But as I said, I only needed to rely on them to “fill in the gaps” that were left in my notes (I often bought them for "insurance" purposes). And when I attended every class, and took down everything the prof. said, I could make an outline and pull an A- or so (with a 2.85 class curve) without preparing for the class, hardly at all.

That’s the big scandal of law school. The method that they tell you you need to follow—reading and rereading the cases before class so that the professors can grill you, and even going so far as taking notes on those cases or fully briefing them, again, before having even come to the class where the case is to be discussed and then taking copious notes in class—is what you need to do in order to “think like a lawyer” and get a good grade. Wrong. Lot's of needless work. Come to class without having read the case or after briefly looking at a commercial outline and then take notes, you can skip all of that preparing for class. Commercial outlines are an effective way to supplement your learning in lawschool—but usually what they have that you need to know is what the professor has already said in class, but didn’t make it into your notes.

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