Are We Using the Socratic Method the Right Way?

Back view of man presenting to students at a lectureHow do you react when someone mentions the Socratic method? Are you immediately transported back to law school, cowering at your desk in hopes you aren’t the professor’s next victim? Or do you miss the lively and challenging debate the method facilitated?

Whether it’s law school, CLE, or generic education settings, the term “Socratic method” is thrown around as a catch-all for any learning event where an expert is delivering content, primarily in a lecture format.

We’ve all heard of it, but what is the Socratic method, really? And why is it the go-to format for educating lawyers?

Before we jump in, let’s start with a question. When you think “Socratic method,” which description comes to mind?

  1. Something that strikes fear in your heart
  2. A robust forum for learning and debate
  3. A two-way conversation about an idea between teacher and students

So, what is the Socratic method?

The answer to my question above is probably all three, depending on your perspective. There has, however, been much debate about exactly what the Socratic method is, or if it’s even a method at all.

What we can say is that the Socratic method, which has been a mainstay of Western education for centuries, is based on the principle that debate, questioning, and discovery are at the heart of truth.

It might come as a surprise to those who remember it differently, but the Socratic method isn’t lecture, rote learning, or even facilitation. In essence, it’s a dialogue between parties, testing an idea through continual questioning to find its flaws. Think of it as the scientific method for legal ideas.

Your feelings about the Socratic method will likely depend on a combination of how and where it was used, your learning preferences, and, to an extent, how much you were engaged in the topic.

For example, in an office straw poll of lawyers on the Commission’s staff, one loved it, another described it as “traumatic,” and a third was firmly on the fence.

The lofty aspirations of Socrates may not be the reality of many lawyers – stories of law school lectures tend to revolve around fear of being singled out in front of hundreds – however, I’d like to separate the wheat from the chaff.

What does the Socratic method aim to achieve?

At this point, it might be wise to consider what the Socratic method is trying to achieve and whether it, in reality, does that.

As I mentioned, the method aims to uncover flaws or gaps in a hypothesis to discover underlying truths. To do this, there shouldn’t be a “sage on the stage” in the traditional sense. That would suggest that there is an established answer to the question to begin with, and Socrates was more interested in students exploring their values, ideas, and beliefs.

In legal education (i.e., law school lectures or CLEs), it sometimes feels like the audience is being talked at rather than a part of a constructive dialogue. This strategy wasn’t effective before the pandemic and with online learning becoming ubiquitous, the need for interactivity and collaboration in a learning setting has become even more apparent.

So, let’s rethink how we view and use the Socratic method.

The Socratic method and leadership

The Socratic method aims to tease out the truth through the questioning of assumptions and hypotheses; its goal isn’t to get through as many facts as possible in the allotted time. So, it may be worth starting by rethinking this practice.

Consider also that we’re living in a vastly different world than the time of Socrates. A significant amount of communication today is online so social confidence holds less currency than it used to.

By making public communication high-risk during a formative time in a lawyer’s education, the profession is potentially losing out on voices and perspectives that could add real value.

This approach may also paint an inaccurate picture of success and leadership in the profession, which doesn’t reflect the day-to-day reality of a lawyer’s life.

Leadership takes many forms in the modern workplace. Great leaders play to their personal strengths and allow others to support their weaknesses. And I would argue that the legal profession is better for it.

Making the Socratic method collaborative

So how do we maintain the core tenets of Socrates and combine them with modern pedagogy? Let’s start with what we know. For example, we know that when working in the gray, teams perform better than individuals. This is especially true for gender-diverse teams.

We also know that social learning yields high-quality results and there is safety in numbers. So, if you’re considering using the Socratic method in a lecture, explore ways that provide the audience an opportunity to think about a question, consider responses as a team, and deliver a robust (and maybe more valuable) exchange that others in the room can build off of.

For example, instead of placing a single person on the spot, perhaps provide a designated team (everyone in row three, for example) several minutes to generate a response to a question while the rest of the class considers additional questions/challenges to the hypothesis.

This method could offer the additional benefit of modeling realistic professional behavior from the start. No lawyer is a lone wolf, and this provides the opportunity for lawyers to view their colleagues as a resource, not their competition.

Evolving your approach to learning

Finally, I urge you to embrace the hidden curriculum. In every learning experience, there is the intentional curriculum and the unintentional one, or the behaviors, values, and messaging communicated through tone, body language, and course structure.

By giving up some control and demonstrating that learning is at best a social enterprise, you’re sending the message that the legal profession can progress beyond a top-down approach to learning.

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2 thoughts on “Are We Using the Socratic Method the Right Way?

  1. Thank you for the reminder. In this age of social disparity, the Socratic method allows us to more deeply explore beliefs.

  2. True, but the “exploration” needs to be done deftly so as not to be receioved as critical or immediately judgmental.

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