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Monday, November 23, 2015

Reverse Socratic

Like many of the teaching candidates now working on it, I have a teaching philosophy from my meat market days, and it is partly devoted to the virtues of the Socratic method, or at least a modified Socratic method. However, as I was teaching my 100-person tax course recently, I got a small dose of what I will call “reverse Socratic”—the students were particularly enthusiastic about finding out more about a particular code section and were asking wonderful questions that linked together to build our understanding of that provision. I must admit, I kind of liked it as a teaching tool—so I didn’t insist on being the one asking the questions. I think reverse Socratic works particularly well in tax, where creative lawyers excel.   I guess it’s time to update my teaching philosophy, at least when it comes to tax.

Posted by Margaret Ryznar on November 23, 2015 at 11:35 AM | Permalink


Thanks, Adam, for the link. I missed that post but glad to see it now, and how well it works in a different subject too.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Nov 23, 2015 2:24:08 PM

It's funny. Years ago, I blogged about my own use of the "reverse socratic" here on Prawfs. (http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2012/01/diary-of-a-nutty-professor.html). If anyone is interested, here's one thing I do and how I described it then:

"Interviews and the 'Reverse Socratic.'

I'm a fan of using witness or client interviews in class to force students to refine their distinctions between cases. In many cases, I'll ask a friend with a real legal problem or a professor with a fake one, to be interviewed in class. Before class, I'll give students a memo with a brief description of the client's problem, but inform them that they will have to ask questions of the client to evaluate the client's potential liability in light of the day's readings. In many cases, I try to refine the legal problem so that it falls somewhere in between two lines of cases, and spend time with my "client" to think through student questions and answers. During the first 15 minutes of class, I'll ask students to prepare as a group by brainstorming potential questions for the client. A panel of students conducts the interview, subject to the same "tag-team" rule I use in negotiations. The pedagogical idea behind the class isn't very different from the Socratic method -- students must make distinctions and analogies between cases and apply them anew-- only this time, they're asking the questions, in an environment made to simulate the attorney-client interview.

For example, in one class, students receive a memo before class announcing a client visit. We prepare, as a class, to interview the CEO of a corporation sued by former employee’s ex-spouse. The plaintiff claims that her ex-husband uploaded pornographic photos of her daughter through the former employer’s servers. The complaint, based on a real New Jersey case, asserts that had the employers followed up on warnings about this particular employee, it would have discovered the information and revealed it to the mother. Students must ask the right questions to determine how the case compares to Tarasoff, where a psychologist was held to owe a duty of reasonable care for the actions of his patient to a victim, in light of a pending motion for summary judgment. In the process, students learn information that then (arguably) places themselves, as lawyers, in the same position as Tarasoff.

Other interviews may involve expert witnesses (scientific causation in Ernst v. Vioxx), lay witnesses (res ipsa in Byrne), law professors up for tenure (Roth and Sindermann), and institutional clients (Feinberg and the BP oil spill). But, like the negotiation, there are tensions between using this method to reinforce a particular doctrine in tort law--affirmative duties--and to teach client interviews. An important skill in client and witness interviews is to learn how to ask open questions and to listen carefully, before jumping to legal conclusions. And this exercise, in some ways, forces students to do just the opposite. I've refined my approach by asking students to think of the questions as though it were a checklist of issues they would like addressed by the end of an interview, and displaying them on a chalkboard. Then, I encourage them to think about how to ask questions and how the questions they ask impact the information they receive."

Posted by: Adam Zimmerman | Nov 23, 2015 2:17:08 PM

Adam, I would say it's more than that--I would say it's thematically linked, and similar to the questions I'd be asking if I were asking them. And, it wouldn't be at the end of the class, where class Q&A often happens. It would be earlier in the class, building up the knowledge of the material. I do think tax works particularly well for it, because students might want to go down a line of thinking about a particular IRC provision I hadn't presented, since there are endless such lines limited only by a person's creativity. But unlike regular Socratic, it's hard to force it to happen and not something I would do unless it organically happened, unless I was like that Contracts professor--love that story!

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Nov 23, 2015 2:08:19 PM

A colleague of mine says that her Contracts professor walked into class the first day and said, "Are there any questions?" There being none, he dismissed the class. Second day, same thing. At that point, the students figured out that if they wanted his help preparing for the exam, they were going to have to start figuring out what the questions were, and the entire semester proceeded in "reverse Socratic" form.

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Nov 23, 2015 12:22:10 PM

By "reverse Socratic," does that just mean that the students ask questions of the instructor as in traditional instruction in high school/college? Or is it something more specific than that?

Posted by: Adam Kolber | Nov 23, 2015 11:55:35 AM

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