October 05, 2004

Socratic method

What's the value of the "socratic method" in law school classes?

Professor Bainbridge asks:

Over at his legal theory blog, Larry Solum has a fascinating post arguing that the very concept of the holding of a case is "inherently ambiguous." Since figuring out the holding of the case is a staple of the Socratic method (at least when that method is done superficially), doesn't this [provide] yet another reason to call into question the pedagogical validity of that method?

This provocative question got me thinking about my own views of the Socratic method, where the professor conducts the class by asking questions of the students rather than simply lecturing.

I think the socratic method works best in exactly those situations where the answer to the professor's question is "inherently ambiguous." Assuming that both the professor and the student have prepared for class, the process of question-and-answer can reveal the ambiguities of a subject more effectively than a straight lecture can. This is because the method can go beyond merely identifying an ambiguity; it can actually demonstrate it. For the student being questioned (the "socratic bunny"), the method demonstrates that almost any answer that isn't hedged against ambiguity can be revealed by the professor to be inadequate. A student who's been interrogated like this is much more likely to focus on the ambiguites than if she had passively taken notes while the professor warned her that there was "no easy answer" to the question of blah, blah, blah. The effect on the other students in class is similar (if they pay attention).

The strongest criticism of the socratic method--that much of the class time is taken up with comments by students who lack knowledge at the expense of comments by the professor, who has knowledge--is at its strongest when the subject matter is unambiguous. "I'm going to tell you what the three tallest buildings in the world are: blah, blah, and blah" is a lot more efficient than "Mortimer, what do you think the world's third tallest building is?"

The question really comes down to whether the advantages of the socratic method for demonstrating ambiguity outweigh the drawbacks of slowing down the rate at which large amounts of factual material can be conveyed. I think the answer depends on how important an understanding of the ambiguities are. My Patent Law professor strikes the right balance, I think. Her classes are a mix of straight lecture when the subject is less ambiguous (statutory text, for example) and socratic questioning when the subject is more ambiguous (the rationales for those rules, or the policy arguments for the rules).

There's another reason apart from all this to like the socratic method: it can keep students awake. Professors who think there's no role for interrogating students in class should remember that many of their students will be sitting in their third straight hour of class (or, like me this term, their fifth). Any teacher concerned about pedagogical techniques has to recognize that this many hours of passive listening to lectures can dull the attention of even the most conscientious student.

Of course, the caveat is that the socratic method can't work if a) the professor has no talent for it, and b) the students haven't prepared and don't pay attention. Of course, these limitations apply to any pedagogical method, not just the socratic one.

Posted by Carey at October 5, 2004 04:42 PM