What exactly is the Socratic method? Asking questions?
Why do I hear so much fearful talk of the Socratic method in law school?
What happens if you just say, "I don't know?"
I don't really expect experienced answers, but I am very interested in the perceived fears (whether they are true of not).
The Socratic Method scares people because
- it's completely new and bizarre to most people; there's no one answer that you can give the professor that can force him/her to stop quizzing you, he'll just alter the facts a bit and ask how the case would have come out in light of the changed facts - it becomes a matter of whenever the prof decides to move on, either because you have done satisfactorily, or because further probing is just a waste of the class' time, since you are being thick-headed
- it's almost impossible to feel adequately prepared
- your intellect + level of preparation + quick-wittedness are simultaneously on display in front of dozens of rivals, some of whom you may feel are not rooting for you...
- if you admit to being unprepared, your professor will likely call you aside after class and warn you to be damn well prepared next time
- some professors never announce when your turn will be, thus forcing you to prepare your ass off each class until your turn finally arrives, which may be at the end of the term - that's brutal.
Here's a capsule summary from Princeton Review:http://www.princetonreview.com/law/research/articles/life/socratic.asp
The Socratic Method
As unfamiliar as the case method will be to most 1Ls, the real source of anxiety is the way the professor presents it. Simply put, Socratic instruction entails directed questioning and limited lecturing. There are law professors who are alleged to have gone an entire semester without uttering a declarative statement. Though the Socratic Method has passed out of vogue in the last decade, it remains a common instruction style in many law schools. The case method already places a dizzying burden on a 1L, but when combined with the Socratic Method, it leaves many feeling helpless.
How it Works
Generally, the Socratic professor invites a student to attempt a cogent summary of a case assigned for that day's class. Regardless of the accuracy and thoroughness of the student's initial response, he or she is then grilled on details overlooked or issues unresolved. A professor will often manipulate the facts of the actual case at hand into a hypothetical case that may or may not have demanded a different decision by the court.
At its best, this approach forces a reasonably well-prepared student to go beyond the immediately apparent issues in a given case to consider its broader implications. The dialogue between the effective Socratic instructor and his victim-of- the-moment will also force non-participating students to question their underlying assumptions of the case under discussion. It also hones the law student's critical reasoning skills and prepares her to litigate before tough judges.
At its worst, the Socratic Method subjects an unprepared student to ruthless scrutiny and fosters an unhealthy adversarial relationship between an instructor and his students.
This article was excerpted from Best Law Schools, 1999 Edition, by Ian Van Tuyl.