Friday, April 18, 2008

The Socratic Method

I've written before about my disappointment about how much of a hazing process law school seems to be and the ineffectiveness of their education methods. One of the worst offenders is their use of the Socratic method: (WARNING: Some bad language after the link.)
When I think about pedagogical devices, one of the most ineffective that comes to mind is the Socratic Method, used liberally in today’s law schools. The purpose is usually to get student x to commit to a position that the professor then shows is indefensible. It is also the device to keep students prepared for class in the absence of such devices as quizzes and exams, which professors would actually have to grade.

But what happens when we use the Socratic Method? When x is called everyone else takes a sigh of relief, knowing that Facebook, shopping, and G-Mail chat is readily available for when the professor wastes the rest of the classes time and money, focusing on student x and his or her positions instead of the material.
Maybe that's why the University of Chicago Law School is banning the use of the Internet in the classroom?
So what does the Socratic Method really do? It provides professors a device that gives students an incentive to prepare for class while limiting the amount of work professors have to do outside of class.

Last, professors may maintain that the Socratic Method helps strengthen students positions on issues. I can tell you, however, that nobody I know believes that they have constructed a consistent and complete (not that it is even possible, anyway) framework of contracts, torts, constitutional law, etc., and nobody I know is any firmer about their positions because of the Socratic Method.

I propose recognizing the Socratic Method for what it is: [junk]. Seth Roberts blogs a lot about who universities are really created for, and I don’t think it could be any clearer who really benefits from the Socratic Method, and who really pays.

(HT Seth Roberts)

1 comment:

Alberto Hurtado said...

As a fellow Mason law student, I both agree and disagree with your comment. I don't think the Socratic method is the problem per se. It's the size of the classes. Having had classes of less than 30 people and even a more socratic seminar of just 15, I can say that when you have a smaller class the process overall is more effective. On the one hand, you're more likely to be involved in the dialogue (just luck of the odds). But on the other hand, you get to know your fellow students on a more intimate basis. That makes a big difference.

Also, I think a lot of law professors bludgeon the socratic method. They fail to use it to draw thoughts out of the students, and instead, use the student's thoughts as a launching-pad for their own conclusions. Socrates was much different—you saw a more genuine respect with his interlocutors. Again, this may be a function of size of the classes combined with a pressure to get through x, y, and z topics rather than having a true dialogue.