So everyone who's seen a movie about law school in America knows that law professors use something called "the Socratic method." The professor asks a student a series of questions about some court case (which the students have read), eliciting the facts, the court's decision, and the reasoning behind it. The professor sometimes tries to elicit from the student recognition of the guiding legal principles at work in the decision. Other times the professor tries to lead the student to the realization that equally good arguments would support a different conclusion by the court (in this guise, the method is less Socratic, than Sophistic, since no one answer to the legal questions presented is deemed to be the correct one). The key is that the professor does not supply the "answers," but tries to lead students to recognize or figure out the answers for themselves.
The Socratic method is not as ominpresent as it once was in law schools, but it is still widely used, more or less, in most law schools, by most professors, at least some of the time.
And that's a scandal. For there is no evidence--as in "none"--that the Socratic method is an effective teaching tool. And there is much evidence that it's a recipe for total confusion.
When I started teaching law, I tried employing something like a Socratic method for the first couple of years, at least in my substantive law classes (never in the legal philosophy classes). I did so because I thought I was supposed to do so. Why? Well, because that's what law professors did--even though there is still no pedagogical research supporting the use of this method. (Am I wrong? I'd be grateful for cites to pertinent educational or psychological research.)
I'm now a recovering Socratic method teacher. Actually, I'm fully recovered: I don't use it. In Evidence, I still have students on call, who need to answer some of the problems in the textbook I use, but that's not Socratic method, that's just mandatory class participation.
As I say to my Evidence classes on the first day: "Philosophy is almost never taught via the Socratic method, so why should law be taught that way?" It's plainly not a question of intellectual or dialectical ability; the exceptional philosophical lecturers I've had the pleasure of listening to in one class or another over the years--Paul Boghossian, Philip Kitcher, Peter Railton, David Velleman, Crispin Wright, among others--are, as thinkers and dialecticians, heads-and-shoulders above all but two or three law professors in the country. They could surely have taught the Socratic way, but they didn't. They are, to repeat, the norm among philosophers.
Here's what one student (at a top law school [not Texas]), also a graduate student in philosophy, wrote to me recently:
"I have to say I'm not a huge fan of the socratic method, largely for the same reason why I'm not much of a fan of the socratic dialogues- it just takes forever to get to the point, wastes a lot of time on poorly thought out responses, and so on. I don't mind being called on at all, it's just the tediousness of the process that annoys me. A surprising number of law students are unable to form a coherent argument."
It is sometimes said on behalf of the Socratic method that it teaches students how to "think like lawyers." This claim would, of course, require some evidence. For example, in most countries, including other common law countries, law is not taught via anything like the Socratic method. Yet presumptively their lawyers think like, well, lawyers. So somehow they learned. "Thinking like a lawyer" is a matter of learning how to reason and argue, in some ways that lawyers share with everyone else, and in other ways that are peculiar to lawyers (e.g., arguments from authority are not fallacious in the law). But why think that one learns how to do this by being grilled Socratically as opposed to reading examples of lawyerly thinking and hearing lectures explaining lawyerly arguments?
Consider, by contrast, the evidence that the Socratic method is a pedagogical disaster:
(1) law students have complained so often for so long about teaching in law schools, that there is now an official lore and vocabulary to describe their frustrations with the pedagogy: e.g., law professors "hide the ball," but then they want "black letter law" on the exams, and so on.
(2) there is an enormous and lucrative industry of "commercial outlines" which teach law students the material that is being covered in their "Socratically taught" classes. These commercial outlines give the students answers: the holdings of the cases, the reasoning, the standard criticisms of the reasoning, etc. If the Socratic method were really an efffective way to teach students law, why would almost all law students (including the very best ones) turn to commercial outlines? The obvious answer is: they don't learn the material effectively from the Socratic method.
A colleague of mine recently stopped using Socratic method, after many years, and began lecturing. S/he discovered that the students were much more eager to speak, and s/he was much more impressed with their ability. S/he is now a recovering Socratic teacher. Perhaps the Association of American Law Schools--which is, otherwise, a useless professional organization--might start a self-help group for recovering Socratic teachers? And perhaps in a generation or two, when the Socratic method has been buried for good, law students, lawyers, and law professors will look back in amazement at how stupidly the law was taught for an entire century in the United States.