Monday, October 14, 2019
Consider the disturbing possibility that in law there is no ball or that, if there is one, no one has a really good account of what it looks like. – Pierre Schlag
The Socratic method is an iconic hallmark of legal education. Even in the face of evolving pedagogy, the Socratic method continues to be regarded as an excellent instructional tool that develops important skills and teaches students to think quickly. Yet, the Socratic method remains one of the most widely used, and possibly equally misused, tools relied upon by law faculty.
Taken to extremes, some scholars espouse the position that Socratic-style teaching should deliberately induce confusion in learners. Professor Rick Hills distinguishes “hopeless confusion” from “productive confusion” the latter in which the instructor “helps the student recognize that the way out of confusion is through focused thought and problem solving, by providing necessary information and suggesting strategies when appropriate.”1 Regardless of the distinction, students are likely to interpret instructor-induced confusion as withholding essential information or “hiding the ball.”
In his article by the same title, Pierre Schlag identifies the ironic significance of the “hiding the ball” metaphor: instead of promoting curiosity in new law students, it seduces their attention away from fundamental inquiry into law. Law students seem to prefer direct instruction that identifies the general rules and their distinctions. Professors commonly refer to this instructive style as “bar review.” Professor Hills recounted, [e]very once in a while, I engage in this “bar review” style lecturing just to make it easier. When I do, my [course evaluations] predictably tick up.2
Hills’ example begs the question to what extent should student preferences be considered in establishing legal education norms. In the face of changing enrollment demographics and declining bar passage, would being more direct with learning deliverables produce more practice ready graduates, or would it dilute the quality of legal education as we know it? Washburn Law Professor Jeffrey Jackson says that the Socratic method should not be the sole means for teaching law, but it can be a complementary tool to other methods of teaching, like Legal Writing and Analysis. By using a combination of teaching methods that provide a variety of approaches, the learning experience of law students can be greatly enhanced.3 Professor Jackson’s model allows for the type of multi-modal instruction that today’s law students deserve.
1 Roderick M. Hills, Jr., William T. Comfort III Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, In defense of hiding the ball in law school classes: Does being confused help you learn stuff?
2 Pierre Schlag, Hiding the Ball, 71 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1681 (1996).
3 Jeffrey D. Jackson, Socrates and Langdell In Legal Writing: Is the Socratic Method a Proper Tool for Legal Writing Courses?, 43 Cal. W. L. Rev. 267 (2007).