Monday, November 23, 2009

'Stare Decisis' - Great for Law, Bad For Teaching Methods

Stare Decisis - "Maintain what has been decided and do not alter that which has been established"
Why do so many law professors continue to use the Socratic method?
[T]he tradition-based argument for the Socratic method fails even on its own terms. It ignores the fact that virtually every academic discipline other than law has a long tradition of not using the Socratic method. That includes professors who teach courses on legal issues in political science, economics, history, and philosophy departments. Similarly, the Socratic method isn’t generally used by law professors in other countries, including other Anglophone common law jurisdictions such as Britain, Canada, and Australia. There is no reason to believe that either non-law classes in the US or legal education abroad suffers because they don’t inflict SM on their students. Nor is there any significant movement to adopt the Socratic method in any of these other academic departments and foreign law faculties. Relative to the traditions of most of the academic world, the widespread use of the Socratic method in American legal academia is an outlier.
Orin Kerr thinks this overestimates the use of the Socratic Method by law school profs. Ilya Somin responds.

As a current law student and a past and future educator, I completely agree with Somin. I have had a class or two in law school that was not so different from Professor Kingsfield's class in the video above. And most several others that were more than shadows of this. Now that I'm in my third year, I've finally gotten used to it (maybe that's part of the point?), but it has not been an enjoyable road getting here.

Problems I see with the Socratic Method:
  • Much of class time is wasted hearing students who have been called on trying to guess what the professor wants them to say. Other students often completely zone out while this is going on. Those who do pay attention can have trouble figuring out what, out of what the student who is on call is saying, the professor actually wants them to learn. Quite often, the professor never clarifies.
  • It causes students to spend their scarce time over-preparing for class and under-preparing for the exam. (In law school, 100% of your grade is based on the final. Another anomaly in law school that I think is counter-productive to learning.) For students unprepared for this, it can severely impact their first-year grades which can set the course for their entire legal career.
  • It needlessly stresses out and sometimes humiliates students. This is particularly true for 1Ls. Law school can be bad enough without this.
  • It is a highly inefficient method for teaching students to be prepared to answer a judge in court. I have gone through at least one class having never been called on and several having only been called on once in a semester. That's hardly what I call rigorous training at answering spontaneous questions from an authority figure.
I will admit that there have been a few times the getting questioned about a topic by my prof has helped steer my thinking to the point of discovery. But for the few times this has happened in my legal education, it is far too high a cost for too little educational benefit.

Law is the fourth discipline I've studied. (In addition to engineering, business, and economics.) Out of all them, law is the only field that uses the Socratic method. I have yet to figure out why.

Our professors know far more than we do about the law. Why don't more of them spend more class time actually teaching us instead of torturing us trying to elicit thoughts from students who had never seen the material prior to five minutes the night before the class? This would give us much more knowledge of the law and better prepare us for the Bar. It might even make us better lawyers too.

Other quirks in law school that make absolutely no educational sense to me:
  • 100% of your grade depends on the final exam. This is not an effective way to provide meaningful feedback to students to facilitate their learning.
  • A large chunk of your future career is determined by your first-year grades. (To be fair, this is probably less a feature of law schools, than of law firms and other organizations hiring law students.) This is a level of path dependency that I find disconcerting and makes law school a bad financial bet for all but the top students.
  • Law professors are incredibly slow (slower than professors or any other discipline I've studied) in returning law school grades. Is this an intentional feature of the legal education system to ensure that students who preform poorly in their first semester don't find out until it's too late to drop classes in their second semester and get a refund? This puts many students into such high levels of debt they feel they must finish law school so they can make enough to pay off their loans, even though by that time they've figured out they'd rather do anything something else. No wonder so many law students are unhappy.
As I've said before, I absolutely love the law. I just wish there was a better, more effective, more enjoyable way to learn it.


Nita said...

I actually like the Socratic method. First of all, I think its very helpful for preparing for the exams because if you pay close attention to the questions a professor asks, you are likely to understand exactly the type of reasoning he or she will expect on an exam. These are the types of notes you should take in a Socratic class - what type of questions did the professor ask. Second, I think it prepares you for life in a firm. Having worked in a law firm, this is the way partners will approach you - ask you questions about your legal reasoning, ask you to break down elements derived from a case, ask you for the ruling and how that applies to your particular issue. Third, I think it keeps you on your toes. So many law students have the tendency to zone out during class, browse the internet, forget to pay attention. The Socratic method keeps you on your toes, helping you simultaneously reason with the professor. Furthermore, it forces you to read for class. Regardless of what anyone will tell you, the best way to prepare for an exam is to actually be prepared for class. You need to have thought through the issues and the Socratic method forces you to do that.

Finally, I will say this: I get a HUGE high of Socratic questioning. Sure, you can screw it up. But once you get comfortable, it's a lot of fun. It's a game - thinking through what the professor wants to hear and contemplating the issues of a case. And if you do screw it up, it's not a big deal because you are learning and that's the purpose of the questioning process.

Clint D said...

My non-law student, common-sense opinion: Socratic method sounds intensely condescending and frankly lazy to me considering that law is based largely on case history and should, as a result, be a matter of studying the history of rulings in order to determine your proficiency in winning a case moving forward. All the Perry Mason stuff is not going to come up in most people's practices.

This, of course, doesn't take into factor the situation whereby I feel common sense has been lost and our case history is made up of an ever drifting wave of overcompensating "victim" (plaintiff) compensations.

Clint D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nita said...

I should be clearer on this, since Brian and I chatted about this. I do not appreciate the classes that I have had where the professor deliberately humiliates you, plays "hide the ball," and chooses to scare you silly. Rather I prefer more of a respectful Socratic method, similar to the one we have both experienced in our criminal procedure class.