Defining What’s Socratic
Updated December 16, 2011, 11:18 AM
It is not easy to evaluate the continued vitality of the Socratic method because we do not all mean the same thing when we use the term. For some, the Socratic method is defined in opposition to the lecture course. For others, it simply means a performative process by which the professor poses a series of unanswerable questions to a hapless student, the purpose of which is not substantive learning but humiliation and embarrassment. Even among professors supposedly using the same pedagogy, classes can be more or less Socratic. Some professors are Socratic in some classes and not in others. I rarely use the Socratic method in upper-level classes because the pedagogical purposes of upper-level classes are different from those of the first year.
The case and question method continues to be useful, particularly in the first year of law school.
I employ a variety of pedagogical methods when I teach first-year students, but the core of my approach is roughly, though not stereotypically, Socratic. By Socratic, I mean a process by which I pose questions to one student at a time about the characteristics of a case, series of cases, or the area of law under examination. One of the great joys of teaching first-year law students is the privilege of bearing witness to the transformation of their minds during the course of the semester or year. You can almost see the metaphoric light bulbs flash as the students acquire a new set of critical thinking skills. In my view, the Socratic method is the most effective and efficient way of imparting these skills to first-year law students. Among other things, they learn to ask different types of questions; to ask questions in a different way; and to distinguish relevant from irrelevant facts. They learn to be self-sufficient independent thinkers. As a teacher, a law professor, I am always awed by this transformation, which I think is unique to the first year.
I am convinced that a critical component of the transformation is the process of intellectual engagement that is often described as the Socratic method. The case and question method of legal instructions should not be, and is rarely, the only tool in the law professor’s toolkit. But it continues to be useful, particularly in the first year. We can refine it, modify it, update it; but we should keep it.