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The Coffee House Philosopher

Socrates answered questions with questions


August 5, 2018

Though the ancient philosopher and teacher Socrates is long gone, variations of the pedagogical technique known as the “Socratic Method of Teaching” might still be encountered in institutions of higher education today, most notably in law schools. Following the dictates of the Socratic method, the discussion leader seldom answers a student’s question directly. Instead he instigates a series of questions and student responses designed to lead the student to a point where the student “discovers” the answer to his own original question.

As for the student’s qualitative benefit, instead of having the teacher lecture by dryly stating one fact after another, the student is supposed to become actively involved with the answer development process as well. Thus, he is supposed to gain a better understanding of the comprehensive situation (a/k/a a “richer learning experience”) by being forced to express related key issues in his own words. (From my own 40 years of experience as a teacher, I often gained additional perspective from students’ responses on an issue as well. At least that’s the way it went when the technique worked well – which was quite often NOT the case.)

In law schools, variations of the Socratic method are used by numerous professors. One of my own professors in civil procedure, George B. Fraser (dubbed by OU law students as “The Tiger”), had his own particular version of it.

Tiger’s technique began by having a student explain a case, or specific aspects of a case. Next, he would ask a series of questions of the student designed to lead the student to reason out a logical position on one or more points of law.

All the time, we other students not being grilled would be madly scribbling out notes concerning the key points being made during the professor/student exchanges. During the exchanges, Tiger would be careful not to say anything positive or negative about the points raised by the student.

But at some point in the question/answer session, Tiger would either castigate the student for his lack of understanding/preparation/intelligence OR simply ask another student THE SAME ORIGINAL QUESTION asked of the first student. At this time, we observing students would begin erasing and/or amending our notes made during the first student’s responses.

The second student usually did his best to explain the original question – with carefully worded distinctions, which he hoped would get him off the hook. And we observing students would begin changing our notes about the case, until again the professor might (without comment) ask a third student THE SAME QUESTION! Often Tiger would then ask the entire class whether ANYONE had carefully read – and made sufficient effort to understand the case. Needless to say, we students at this time, often didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to do regarding our written, partially erased and re-written notes.

At other times, instead of criticizing, Tiger might confirm that what the first student (or second) had said regarding the case had been correct, by such terms as, “Yes, the law in Oklahoma (or wherever) is clearly established that ....” Needless to say, we students more than once wanted to offer up a generous serving of hemlock to Tiger at no charge. But since he had graduated at the top of his Harvard Law School class, and had written a large part of the civil procedure provisions for Oklahoma, we students felt it was probably best not to.

After graduation, I once stopped into his office and asked “the Tiger” why he conducted his classes that way. He responded (for once directly) that he was frustrated by mere lecturing when the students could gain as much by listening to a tape recorder. He also did not want the majority of students “merely writing and never thinking or arguing.” Argument is actually a complementary term in law. It presupposes (sometimes incorrectly) that reasoning and logic are involved during the resolution of an issue. Tiger went on to add, “I have never liked having only one student thinking and discussing a matter, and everyone else mindlessly writing unchallenged things down.”

As previously stated, Socrates was supposed to have killed himself by taking hemlock. From my own experience, the choice might have been made to avoid being beaten to death by his frustrated students. As evidence, I sometimes tried to enrich my own business law classes by introducing some of Socrates’ teaching methods. But after reviewing some of my later student evaluations, I decided I’d better avoid that ever-lurking hot potato.


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