Saturday, February 22, 2020
I have received a couple of emails asking how I can claim in my critical thinking book (here) that law schools do not systematically teach critical thinking considering that law schools use the Socratic method. The problem is that the Socratic method, as it is currently used in law schools, teaches deriving doctrine from cases and understanding that doctrine, not critical thinking. For example, Professor Deborah Merritt has argued:
"The case method is legal education’s signature pedagogy. Law professors point to the method with pride, and that pride has considerable foundation. In theory, the case method accomplishes at least five pedagogic goals:
- It demonstrates that law is not static; law evolves through judicial interpretation. On some topics, students also see how the law evolves through legislation and administrative regulations.
- It teaches students how to read and synthesize judicial interpretations. Depending on the subject, students also learn how to read statutes and harmonize them with judicial opinions.
- It prepares students to advocate for changes in the law–primarily in the courts, but with some approaches that can be used with legislators and other decision-makers.
- It develops critical thinking skills (careful reading, analogical reasoning, identification of patterns and distinctions) that are transferable to many other contexts.
- It instructs students on the doctrinal principles discussed in the cases and accompanying statutes.
Can the case method accomplish all of these goals–especially when it is used in a large classroom with a single end-of-semester exam? I doubt that the method ever achieved as much as it claims, except perhaps for the highest achieving students in a classroom. Today, the method has been quietly subverted to accomplish primarily the fifth goal: instructing students on doctrinal principles. Law schools stake their value on teaching the other four cognitive skills listed above, but we deliver less of that learning than we believe." (here) Similarly, Professor Jessica Erickson has asserted, "The Socratic classroom has turned into a 'soft Socratic' space." (here)
The other problem is that most academics don't know what critical thinking actually means; they use it in a general, vague sense. Scholars who study critical thinking have defined what it means and what thinking processes it comprises. Here are two good definitions: Critical thinking is “[t]he intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” (here) “It is . . . automatically questioning if the information presented is factual, reliable, evidence‑based, and unbiased.” (here) Critical thinking is a set of processes, including metacognition, conceptualizing, synthesizing (constructing), asking questions, organizing, developing and evaluating alternatives, considering unintended results, planning, self-monitoring, reflection, spotting assumptions, evaluating inferences, exercising epistemic vigilance, supporting arguments with evidence, evaluation, skepticism, and self-direction.
As I show in my book, the Socratic method can be used to teach critical thinking systematically. But as Professors Merritt and Erickson have asserted, as it is currently used in law school, it does not do this.