The Socratic Teaching Method – What the Clunk?

27 de agosto de 2017

I’ve had a couple (more than a couple…let’s say countless) conversations with law students about their classroom experience and the Socratic Teaching Method.

Common words affiliated with their experiences are:

  2. Fear of HUMILIATION
  3. Anxiety before facing HUMILIATION
  4. Confusion after HUMILIATION
  5. Crying in class leading to further HUMILIATION
  6. Anger hours later after processing public HUMILIATION
  7. Frustration knowing that next class will bring further HUMILIATION

 So, what gives?


Isn’t the Socratic Method supposed to be a great teaching methodology?  Isn’t this THE symbolic classroom experience for law students to feel like real, rad, true grit law students?  C’mon!  Of course it is.  It’s supposed to make our classroom experience special.  It’s supposed to teach us to think analytically and find our own answers.  It’s supposed to carry on the tradition of that great old dude named Socrates for goodness sake!

But, then, why the humiliation?  Is humiliation just a necessary part of the process?  I’m thinking no.  And, from what I hear from a little birdy attending a pretty nifty school somewhere over there, even his professors get frustrated with the Socratic Method.  It’s not just the students.


Let’s start with history.  Imagine some tunic-like clothes and fantastic facial hair:

A true Socratic dialog — as Plato portrayed it — is made up of an elenchus, in which questions reveal the student’s ignorance; an aporia, the point at which the student recognizes the ignorance; and a psychagogia, in which questions help the student come to insights that replace the ignorance shown earlier. The paradigmatic Socratic dialogue appears in the Meno, where Socrates interrogates a servant boy. During the elenchus, the boy recognizes the falsity of his own claim that the area of a square can be doubled by doubling the length of its sides. And during the psychagogia, with a few hints from Socrates, he develops a mathematically correct method of doubling a square.


If a teacher conducts only an elenchus culminating in an aporia and then ends the dialog, the student is at least embarrassed and perhaps humiliated, even if the teacher has a soft and unthreatening demeanor. Without that demeanor, the effect is brutal. Stopping at the aporia might have some precedent in the early Platonic dialogs, where Socrates “never talks to anyone without refuting him.” In some of them, the elenchus “involved persistent hypocrisy; it showed a negative and destructive spirit; [and] it caused pain to its victims.” But in the later dialogs, written by a more mature Plato, the psychagogia becomes more fully developed. Unless the person being interrogated argues belligerently, Socrates questions with encouragement during the elenchus, and the psychagogia ends with a sense of accomplishment on both sides. (19-20)


Now, let’s break this down a bit.  Our professors are supposed to do three steps:

  1. “elenchus” – cold call us out of the blue and ask questions that will eventually reveal our ignorance.
  2. “aporia” – make sure we recognize we’re ignorant and inadvertently let everyone in our class know we are ignorant.
  3. “psychagogia” – ask probing questions that will get us to figure out insights that will erase the ignorance from the first two steps and redeem us to ourselves and our classmates.

So what gives?  Where to begin…

First, many professors aren’t completing all three of the steps:  “Hello students, today, I will teach you a lesson in humiliation, because, oops!  I forgot the psychagogia, you know, that part where I ask the questions that lead you to self-discovery and redemption in front of your classmates”.  Second, some professors may hit all three steps but may do it in a style of harshness and condescension so that the student feels humiliated despite having “found the answer”.


Now, let’s get a little Battle Royale in here and add in a few math items:

Elenchus + Aporia + Psychagogia + THE CURVE = Psychological Meltdown

The curve creates an atmosphere of fear, jealousy, self-loathing, and anger.  When pitted directly against your classmates knowing there are only a handful of A’s out there with a professor asking you to answer questions that are supposed to make you sound ignorant, what do you expect will happen?

We students start going BSC and feel things we hoped we’d never see on afternoon TV specials.  It makes sense for students to feel humiliated, fearful, and anxious.  If you’re sitting there listening to one of your poor classmates go through this humiliation, often the worse he sounds, the more relieved you feel (with a touch of self-loathing and guilt), and if your classmate somehow transcends the ignorance into psychagogia and finds some brilliant answer that erases his ignorance to the entire class, you suddenly feel fear and anxiety, wondering if he will get the coveted A (while predicting that when it’s your turn to be called on, you’re totally going to sound ignorant and feel humiliated -AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!)

What. A. Mess.


Next, let’s talk about the younger professors – the newbies in the field, if you will.  In my experience and observing other people’s experiences, it seems like the new professor is most at risk of getting this Socratic Method so terribly wrong.  I have heard tales of sweet 1Ls crying.  I have heard of the crushing of souls.  I have heard of professors ripping students apart, then stomping on their still beating hearts.  And, what do these professors usually have in common?  They’re usually new to teaching.  Why does this happen?  Who knows?  I sometimes wonder if the newer profs feel like they have to set up a hard rep to try to gain respect to make up for their often younger age and lack of experience.

Through some digging around town, I found out that new professors go through quite a bit of training before they start teaching.  The Association of American Law Schools holds a multi-day training event for incoming profs and annual meetings, all of which provide sessions on how to teach.  Plus, there are groups, workshops, formal and informal faculty mentorship opportunities for new profs getting ready to take on their first semester of teaching.  Generally, unlike undergrad, our profs are being trained not to lecture us but to teach us to critically think.  And in my opinion, the Socratic Method has its place in this.  But as for training profs to teach, I honestly don’t know enough to make a recommendation here, so I’m going to move on to the fun part – what can students do?


As a student, I see one area where we, as students, could help out our professors (especially the new ones) and make this entire process filled with more learning and less crying.  If you’re thinking, well, student, go email your professor and let him know what he’s doing wrong.  Yeah, right!  Never going to happen.  As if.  Just imagine the consequences the student might face and what kind of system is that anyway?

What about something a bit more reasonable?  Give us the opportunity to fill out teacher evaluations midway through the semester anonymously online.

Example:  Professor X new (or visiting) to the school.  Professor X made student Y cry and all students in class feel Professor X is ridiculously harsh and also unclear.  This continues the entire semester, likely without Professor X even knowing how much his students loathe him.  Finally, at the very end, students have their chance to write their end-of-semester evaluations, and, boy do they let him have it!


Eventually, next semester rolls around, and Professor X’s reputation changes.  “Yeah, I heard Professor X was such a [insert expletive], but this semester she’s tough but fair and also clear”.  Could it be that the “special” reviews of the “worst” professors made a difference in their teaching methodology strategies for the next semester?  For the professors who are especially “bad”, students sometimes spend extra time and ask for extra paper to write down every excruciating detail about the professor’s failings on those end-of-semester reviews.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I think any intelligent, prof would read their first ever teaching reviews and decide that a change of pace might be a good idea should they get a wave of awful comments.


Well, because, of course, this would require a ridiculous amount of money and time.  I mean, imagine the costs of implementing a free online survey!  Preposterous.  Also, what a pain for a professor to learn midway through the semester what he could improve.  Wouldn’t that just be such a pest?  I mean, it’s not like he has time to read things or could benefit from more student feedback.  Just because he’s a professor doesn’t mean it’s his job to learn from his students how to teach them any better…


Now then, my pretties, if you lovely law students out there can convince your faculty and admins to implement these teacher evaluations more often, don’t waste it.  Make sure that you’re affirmatively filling them out and keeping up your side of the bargain, or request that your administration give you “friendly” reminders to do it (or even better, brainstorm with them to find a clever way of incentivizing students to give professors VERY thorough feedback both MID-SEMESTERand end-of-semester).

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