By Ursula Furi-Perry, Esq. • April 19, 2010•Writers in Residence
Admittedly, I have some beef with the Socratic method.
For starters, “Researchers…cite the use of the Socratic method in the classroom and the faculty's emphasis on linear thinking at the expense of student creativity and personal values,” write Todd David Peterson and Elizabeth Waters Peterson in their article, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology. “Others have found that law school fosters certain personality traits in its students that can lead to unhappiness, such as defensiveness and pessimism.” See 9 Yale J. Health Pol'y, L. & Ethics 357
What could be worse in promoting defensiveness and pessimism than pitting student against professor in an often adversarial setting? And what law student or law grad doesn’t have a story about some unpleasant experience with the Socratic method? (I still remember the demoralizing experience in one class – while I was nearly six months pregnant – when the professor had me stand for FORTY-FIVE MINUTES, badgering me with the most particular questions about TWO PARAGRAPHS in a case. Not only do I not remember what she asked or what I answered, I don’t even remember what case I was briefing, let alone what the case stood for or what law I was supposed to cull from it. The demoralizing part of the experience, however, stays with me.)
In fact, some say that the Socratic method adversely affects minorities and women law students in particular. In an article titled The Problem Method: No Simple Solution, author Shirley Lung writes that “For women, rates of classroom participation are lower than for men because the Socratic method ‘makes them feel strange, alienated, and 'delegitimized."' See 45 Willamette L.Rev. 723. Interestingly, Lung notes that women are also excluded from law school informal learning networks and that on average, men receive better grades than women do throughout all three years of law school.
As some suggest, students find the Socratic method to be not only crushing to their confidence, but also an ineffective learning tool. “Student reactions to the Socratic method suggest that the traditional law school class adversely affects student self-confidence, gender disparities, interest in the subject matter, and even the relationship between the students and the educational experience. It is also noted that the design of the Socratic method limits the range of skills it engenders, most notably due to the lack of participation by students not engaged in the particular dialogue” notes Keith Hirokawa in an article called Critical Enculturation: Using Problems to Teach Law, 2 Drexel L. Rev. 1.
Indeed, the real issue behind the Socratic method, to me, isn’t necessarily its adverse effect on a student’s law school experience—the real issue is its adverse effect on the end result: the student’s understanding and knowledge of law needed to successfully pass the bar exam and enter law practice. As used by most law professors, the Socratic method is simply not effective and efficient enough at teaching students the kinds of things that students want and need to learn. Take my personal experience above, which taught me absolutely nothing—that feeling seems to be prevalent among many law students. Supposedly, one hallmark of the Socratic method is that it gives no “right” or “clear” answers to the questions posed by the professor, yet students are expected to have some answers – whether it’s a definition of consideration or the elements of negligence – when the time comes to take exams, not to mention the bar. So, unless the professor sprinkles in a healthy dose of lectures or exercises to teach black letter law, the student is left to her own devices to figure out what she is supposed to know.
Proponents of the Socratic method say it’s a great tool for honing analytical skills, engaging in context-based learning of the law, and fostering self-directed learning. That may all be true, and teaching students to “think like a lawyer” is all great, but teaching them nothing else besides that means cheating them out of the thorough education they ought to be receiving. We need to focus on teaching law students what they need to know on the bar exam and in law practice. Employers increasingly say that they want junior associates to “hit the ground running.” In that sense, analytical skills and thinking skills are a great start, but practical knowledge and application are what set a potential candidate apart from the rest.
My hunch is that for some (many?) law professors, the Socratic method is not much more than a crutch—a easy way out of preparing “hard” lectures on the substantive black letter law. For others, it’s simply “the way we’ve always done things.” For students, though, a purely Socratic environment isn’t necessarily the most effective and efficient learning environment at all.
In next month’s Ms. Prof. column:
Law school numbers, recruiting, and wearing make-up to work: Next month, I look at some interesting recent articles about the recruitment of women and minority professors and their experiences in the classroom.