Adjunct Law Prof Blog

Editor: Mitchell H. Rubinstein
New York Law School

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The "soft Socratic" method of teaching law students

Here are a couple of posts from the Legal Profession Blog and The Faculty Lounge describing a "kinder, gentler" post-Kingsfield form of Socratic teaching that I assume most 1L profs employ.  The Faculty Lounge describes "soft Socratic" as creating "a welcoming atmosphere in the classroom where students feel free to participate, but [the prof is also] sufficiently rigorous in calling on students to ensure that everyone is prepared."

The Legal Profession Blog's take on this is to call it the "interrogative lecture" which means "something . . . [that] ink falls between whatever soft Socratic is, and the incredibly annoying "anyone? anyone?" style of Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller's Day Off:"

[T]here are two aspects of classroom manner that make the teaching Socratic of any kind.  First, the teacher calls on students (rather than relying on volunteers).  The method of calling, and the amount of warning (e.g. panels, going in alphabetical order, working across the seating chart) don't matter - if you call on students other than volunteers, it's Socratic.  Second, whether or not, it's "soft," there's a certain amount of squirm that the teacher is willing to allow the student to endure.  It may be a nanosecond of squirm, or it may be an extended squirm, but there's squirm.  In my view, there's a third element to traditional "hard" Socratic method, but I'm not inclined to make it a sine qua non, because it usually disappears in "soft Socratic":  the progression of questions from the statement of the facts of the case, through the court's holding, to a series of increasingly minor variations in the fact pattern, to the point at which the viability of the rule of law announced in the case, at least as a matter of analogical reasoning, falls away.  The primary pedagogical purpose is to impart the understanding that in the common law the court's holding and the facts are inextricably linked, and to test the power of the analogy that supposedly connects the thread of the law as it progresses from case to case.  (I take no position in this blog post as to whether that's a load of hooey, but I will say that the notion of a case being "on all fours" depends on precisely this relationship.  Moreover, if you think about the "law" being taught, say in 1910, which I'm positive was overwhelmingly case law versus statutory interpretation or any kind of "law and..." (even at "elite" schools), it's not surprising that it might well have worked!)

To the extent you find it helpful to compare notes with how others approach classroom teaching, you can read the rest here.


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