Monday, March 28, 2011

One law student's defense of the Socratic teaching method

Here's a spirited argument from one law student in favor of retaining the tried and true Socratic method at a time when legal educators face increasing pressure to reform the law school curriculum in order to better prepare students for law practice. This student argues that the Socratic method is already the best preparation for practice.  From the Albany Government Law Review Fireplace:

The reality is that “‘[n]o one has ever died because of the Socratic method . . .” and the added pressure is pivotal in getting used to what the profession is all about. Thus, to disfavor a practice that has been respected for centuries, precisely because of its tenacity, would completely undermine the law school learning process and make it less rigorous. Another Harvard Law professor reiterates that pure lecturing (which it seems these students would prefer) would mean “the lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. . . .It treats the student not as a man, but as a school boy reciting his lines.” Law school has a reputation for being so difficult because the professor is not going to hold the student’s hand from start to finish; it is presumed that students already have acquired the skills necessary to adapt to a new world of academia.  It would be entirely elementary to expect the professor of higher education to adapt to every student’s individual needs.

. . . .

Learning theory before practice, by means of the Socratic method, is at the hallmark of the intellectual tradition of legal education.  It makes the law school classroom the starting point, as the challenging forum that turns the fresh young minds of first year students into sophisticated and empowered practitioners of today.  If law school only taught practical tactics in lawyering, with no theoretical or philosophical premise to conceptualize the historical underpinnings of what the law is today, law students may as well earn an online degree and call it a day.

. . . .

Some legal scholars believe that just because the legal academic institution is hesitant to adopt “progressive” methods means that the Socratic method is “archaic” and devoid of any true significance. This belief is alarming.  The Socratic method has been used for over centuries and there is a reason for it: the risk of being questioned invokes classroom participation in such a vicarious way that it explores the strengths and weaknesses of the student’s legal arguments.  These students are more apt to learning legal analysis by actually doing it, cold, with questions thrown at them rapid fire, strengthening their oral dialogue. In essence, if a student finds the material to be so intellectually challenging that being questioned about it Socratically contributes to overtaxing psychological pressure, chances are, that student will have a hard time practicing law.  The reality? “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

You can read the rest here.

Hat tip to the Best Practices For Legal Education blog (which also includes a response to Ms. Carravetta's original post).


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