Monday, November 11, 2019

The Continuing Importance of the Socratic Method

I have often criticized the use of the Socratic method in law school.  I think that this traditional method of law school teaching is overused and that professors often apply it in a superficial manner.  However, I also believe that proper use of the Socratic method is important in developing law students' legal reasoning and problem-solving abilities.  It should be refined and employed with other teaching methods, such as problem-solving exercises, formative assessment, and metacognitive questioning.

Last week, I discussed a section of Deborah L. Borman & Catherine Haras, Something Borrowed: Interdisciplinary Strategies for Legal Education for its debunking of legal education neuromyths, particularly learning style theory.  This article also has an important discussion of the continuing use of the Socratic method.

The authors write, "This criticism notwithstanding, the Socratic method employs many of the cognitive principles discussed in this paper: The Socratic method uniquely leverages prior knowledge, engages students in real-time practice and feedback, and incorporates testing as a social learning experience that is personally meaningful for students. Proponents generally agree that the Socratic method provides many benefits to teaching and learning, including the ability of professors to teach large bodies of students in an active manner; the development of cognitive skills, as in teaching students to “think like a lawyer”; the ability to help students hone their verbal communication skills; and proof that asking critical questions results in good analytical writing. The Socratic method at its best is an example of one education technique that law education does particularly well: teaching students to dialogue by increasing their self-awareness and practice. The Socratic method is a deeply metacognitive skill.

They continue, "as the conversation begins to explore disagreement and eventually becomes a dialogue, the aim is for disequilibrium, creating opportunities for renewed understanding that comes from difference. Disequilibrium brings new understanding to the topic under discussion, and at the conclusion of the dialogue equilibrium may again be restored. In an inquiry it is our disagreements as well as our agreements that shape the dialogue. In a dialogue, we aim for a renewed understanding that comes from exploring ideas in disequilibrium. In this process, we reconstruct our previous knowledge."

The authors then make a very important point, which is not usually discussed in connection with the application of the Socratic method: "Critical thinking is driven not by answers but by questions."  The authors add, "A focus on answers defies critical thinking. Answers often signal a full stop in thought. Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life as such. That is why only students who ask questions are thinking and learning."

The authors then present a method of adding question formulation to the Socratic method.  I will let you read the details of their method in their article.

We have often stressed on this blog that, if law professors are going to continue to use the Socratic method, they need to do so in a more rigorous manner.  In their article, professors Borman and Haras have presented an innovative approach to doing this.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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