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Saturday, January 06, 2024

What do we mean by "Socratic Method"?

Orin Kerr posted his 1997 article on the decline of the Socratic Method in law school. It is an interesting read, featuring interviews with several HLS professors (Orin wrote the piece for a seminar). He divides the subjects into three groups--Traditionalists (using the true-and-traditional SM); Quasi-Traditionalists (mixing Socratic "flavor" with other techniques); and Counter-Traditionalists (rejecting SM in favor of panels, lectures, and group problems).

So a question I have wondered about since I began teaching (and maybe since law school): What does the "Socratic Method," in the purest sense, entail? What are its essential elements? What did the professors of the '40s-early '60s do that post-'80s teachers do not? From the descriptions of what the non-traditionalists (whether quasi- or counter) do, I think I identify the following elements:


    Targeted at one on-call individual for at least some period

    Case-centric and tied to the Langdellian case method. That is, the Q&A focuses on a particular case and hypothetical off-shoots of those cases. No pre-set problems or hypos. No broader discussion of the issues as a whole, disentangled from the particular case.

    No prof resolution of the questions or issues at the end of the questioning

    Randomized cold-calling with no (or very little) notice or warning of when you might be called on. No volunteers.

    Last names only.

    No passing unless the student has formally opted-out in advance. Or at least the pass results in some embarrassment for the student or the burden falling on his neighbor.

Additional elements? Did I list anything that should not be part of the definition?

If I am right about these "elements," then I have never had a traditionally Socratic professor, including among those who began teaching before the 1990s. Even the greatest media representation--The Paper Chase--was not purely Socratic; one plot line involved Hart gathering the courage to raise his hand in class. No one on my faculty uses the pure-and-traditional SM. I am not purely Socratic for a bunch of reasons that vary by class, although my student evals seem to disagree. FWIW, this fits my experiences on appointments committees, where every candidate describes her teaching style as "modified Socratic"--code for "rigorous but not obnoxious."

Also if I am right, I am not sure what is lost. I do not see the pure SM as so much more rigorous and challenging than the modified SM Orin's subjects describe.

Comments left open, because I am curious about this.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 6, 2024 at 03:23 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


I'd echo Dan's comments - when I was at Stanford in the late 70s, the only professor who did anything close to cold call SM was John Kaplan, and that clearly had a Harvard Law School provenance. But Kaplan had wit and some showmanship and was fundamentally kind-hearted. His calling on me in the first couple weeks of Criminal Law provoked a story that I continue to tell people after we've had a few drinks.

Perhaps even Kaplan was tempered by a kind of "anti-Harvard" laid-back culture at Stanford at the time. Most professor/student interaction in the classroom when I was there occurred with volunteers. And invariably, whether it was a SM dialogue or a volunteer's questions or [!] insights, I simply shut down and ignored it until we returned to the professor saying something I considered helpful.

As a result, when I returned to the classroom after 26 years, I was a committed Counter-Traditionalist, in Orin's taxonomy (although I disagree with his characterization of that category "transmitting information"; my approach is very much about thinking process, not merely "data"). SM has its roots in a particular and narrow community of teachers and learners, who may have self-selected to continue it because for those few it resonated. The concentration of law faculty from a limited number of schools over the last 120 years or so supports that.

The decline of SM as Orin observed, I'd suggest, apart from the infantilizing power dynamics of seating charts and cold calling terror (or the modern version - dictating how students use technology or take their notes), is the consequence of its being inefficient and ineffective for the learning styles, regardless of capability, of vast segments of the class. For example, somebody would have to show me conclusive studies showing that the 99 students other than the one being grilled are learning something. Or that speaking in class in front of those other 99 students contributes to very much. What technology allows now is not the even worse "death by PowerPoint" transmission of information, but means to engage all 100 students simultaneously in problem-solving or even responding to socratic-style questions about cases or hypotheticals.

I recall somewhere seeing a critique of medical training, and particularly the way interns and residents were subjected to grueling 36 hour on-call shifts; the attitude of older physicians being "if we had to stand it, so can they." As far as I'm concerned, that would be the only way to justify the "pure" (and, it strikes me, toxic) SM that Howard describes.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jan 10, 2024 11:55:45 AM

Great question. When I was at HLS in the late 80's, my sense that there remained a half dozen or so faculty who styled themselves as the real deal, that is, Socratic Method in the way Howard describes. I never had Arthur Miller, who was widely viewed as a master of that style. I did have Philip Areeda for antitrust, who taught in a wholly SM style. And he was terrific. My experience, without naming names, is that leaving aside these two, the others who were committed to the the bit (whoops, I mean the style) were not successful. Perhaps this had as much to do with rebellion and ambivalence among students in that era, then any particular flaws in their approach.

Coming to Berkeley (Boalt Hall) soon thereafter as a teacher and working hard to model my fledgling teaching after the masters, I recall Mel Eisenberg and Jesse Choper teaching in the Socratic style. They were obviously great teachers, and presumably would have mastered other styles as well. As with legal ed generally, pure SM faded at that law school and the law schools at which I taught full-time or as a visitor later. So, really a bygone era. Perhaps tempting to say good riddance, but I'll say just that SM seems high variance quality and really only workable in the hands of true masters. Reminds me of what Louis Armstrong said when a reporter asked him to define jazz: "Man, if you don't really truly understand it, then don't mess with it."

Posted by: Daniel Rodriguez | Jan 9, 2024 3:40:57 PM

Great question! I think the list in the post conflates two things, though: (1) the manner of dialogic engagement with students and (2) classroom management. A professor can use Socratic method and take volunteers or use first names; likewise, a professor can use last names and cold call but never use Socratic method. So things like "randomized cold-calling," "last names only," and "no passing" are elements of classroom management, not Socratic method. (I suppose one could argue that these things are not just classroom management but have pedagogical value, in that they are training students to participate in environments where these elements are also present, but that still doesn't make them part of Socratic method.)

To Nikita Aggarwal's point, I think Socratic method is a form of dialogic engagement. In its purest form, it's asking successive questions of a student that probe the student's answer, present hypotheticals, etc., in a way that requires the student to rethink the limits of their answer and, perhaps, modify it until some desired endpoint is reached. So, with this definition, asking students for detailed descriptions of the facts or the holding of a case are not themselves the use of Socratic method; likewise, asking a single question of a student before moving on isn't either.

But there are many methods of effective teaching in a law school classroom. So, to Nikita Aggarwal's point again, it might be easier if we moved away from labels and instead simply talked about what we do.

Posted by: Laura Heymann | Jan 9, 2024 10:05:49 AM

What is being taught in our nation’s law schools is probably at least as important as the method used to teach it, but important changes over the past few years have limited what can and is being taught; and the result is far short of desirable.

Even many years ago, Prof Alan Dershowitz complained that so many students regarded the law of rape as too controversial, and/or that merely teaching it was so objectionable, that some of his colleagues at this premier law school stopped teaching in criminal law.

Indeed, professors are being asked to not even use of the word “violate,” even to ask simple questions such as “Does this conduct violate the law?”

Law students - who in their practices may have to deal with vicious murders and rapes, as well as mass killings by corporations - are being treated as such delicate snowflakes that classes must be cancelled and exams postponed because of disturbing events hundreds of miles away.

Many students complain that they are afraid to express their feelings in class for fear of reprisal from their professors, just as law professors themselves are being subjected to investigations, are not hired or even fired, when their words displease some group.

And in some situations they are deemed so fragile that they must be provided with play dough and offered counseling to avoid trauma; a far cry from lawyers who risked their lives to defend clients and even to break away from England

And many law students, like their undergraduate peers, are siding, often violently, with Hamas over Israel, apparently in part because of what they have been taught, including that the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech,” or speech which is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.

So instead of academic discussions about “cold calling” rather than “on deck” or “opt out,” perhaps we should pay more attention to what is not being taught and why, and even do something about it.

Posted by: LawProf John Banzhaf | Jan 8, 2024 5:53:58 PM

It’s a question I have been asking myself recently. I’ve just been through the entry-level job market and was asked on at least a few occasions about my familiarity with, and use of, the Socratic Method (more specifically, as someone originally educated in the UK). Given the greater prevalence, in practice, of modified/diluted forms of the SM, I’m not sure how useful the term, and these questions, continue to be (even if one accepts the premise that experience of a pedagogic method as a student makes one better able to apply it as an educator). We might instead refer more broadly to the use of dialogue, or more narrowly to the use of the specific elements/techniques that you identify.

Posted by: Nikita Aggarwal | Jan 7, 2024 6:03:00 PM

I employ all of the elements of Socratic Method you describe in both my 1L Contracts and upper-level Corporations classes, and have done so since I started teaching in 2008 --- with one minor exception: I often clarify or sum-up the rule after a student has stated it, just so students are clear on the takeaway.

Posted by: Andrew Schwartz | Jan 7, 2024 5:15:45 PM

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