August 20, 2008
"Imagine Socrates with Tourette syndrome"
Posted by Gordon Smith

Steve Bainbridge describes one of his teachers at the University of Virginia Law School. Then Steve writes about his own philosophy of teaching law:

I eventually came to two conclusions. First, if students couldn’t think like lawyers by the time they got to me in their second or third year of law school, there was very little I could do to help them except suggest another line of work.

Second, the Socratic method doesn’t really teach you to “think like a lawyer.” At best, it teaches you to think like a litigator.

That first insight caused him to talk more and ask fewer questions. That second insight causes him to talk about economics and business, not just legal doctrine. And gradually, he came to this:

I had always lectured some. I defy even Professor Scott to teach the Capital Asset Pricing Model Socratically. As my teaching became more oriented towards transactions, and business and economics became more important, and identifying sources of value in the underlying deals out of which the cases arose became the key task, grilling law students seemed less and less effective.

Gradually, bit by bit, I freed myself from the trappings of the soft Socratic method. Away with panels! Away with volunteers! Away with questions! Up with PowerPoint!

Once I went through the 12 step program and became what Brian Leiter calls a “recovering Socratic teacher,” I noticed that I had some interesting company. Leiter, for example, has written that: “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.”

Having seen Steve in action, I can testify that he is an excellent lecturer. I fully understand why students flock to his Business Associations class, and I congratulate him on receiving the  Rutter Award for Teaching Excellence.

In the following paragraphs, I am going to say a few words about my own teaching philosophy, but I don't intend this post as a challenge Steve, who has obviously found his groove. Instead, I view this post -- and others in this series, which started here and can be located in the future under the Category "Teaching" -- as a set of "meditations" on teaching that are mostly about helping me to explain to myself what I am doing, with the hope that others may benefit.

Like Steve I have always been willing to experiment with my teaching, and my teaching style has evolved substantially over the years. I noted this past spring that I had been working with the BYU Center for Teaching and Learning on new teaching strategies. This effort was not inspired by poor student evaluations -- to the contrary, I have long been at or near the top of the heap on that measure -- but rather by the nagging sense that I could do better. What bothered me most was this thought: is it possible that I was very good at teaching even if my students weren't doing much learning?

My experience has been that law faculties aren't very clear in the way we think about this. If we are to have a meaningful discussion about teaching and learning, however, we must begin from the premise that good teaching necessarily leads to significant learning. If the students aren't learning, what's the point?

That seems pretty straightforward, but here's the problem: traditional law classes don't have very good measures of teaching or learning. If you think that the quality of teaching is measured effectively by traditional student evalutations, you might want to take a look at my first post in this series. Based on my own experience, observations, and reading, teachers can achieve very good evaluations without instilling much learning. Thus, good evaluations are not equivalent to good teaching. Also, traditional law school exams are not very effective measures of learning. This requires a fuller discussion, but I will save that for another post.

The point of this post is simply to establish that the right way to evaluate the quality of teaching is to measure the quality of learning. In future posts, I will talk about finding better measurements of teaching and learning, but I will confess that this is an ongoing search for me. In the meantime, I have decided that the best learning is likely to occur when students are engaged in various ways with the subject matter of the class. Reading, listening, observing, writing/drafting, solving problems (both alone and as part of a team), interviewing, counseling, etc. are all ways in which students might be engaged. The longer I teach, the more I strive to use precious classtime for interpersonal engagement among students (i.e., working as teams), and the less I rely on lectures or socratic method. This semester, I am striving to move my lectures online and out of the classroom. The socratic method may still have a place in my classroom, but I hope to make that place smaller and more purposeful than before.

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Comments (5)

1. Posted by Matt Bodie on August 20, 2008 @ 22:12 | Permalink

I'm very much looking forward to your further explorations. And I was intrigued by your twitter reference to "organizing my students into teams and creating a Quality Circle." Not sure if you planned on getting into that further, but I'd be interested in hearing more about how those work.


2. Posted by Rex on August 21, 2008 @ 7:51 | Permalink

With all its flaws I will think that is much better the Socratic Method than the one I had in my home country let's call the "German Method", where the professor is lecturing, never to be interrupted, and if so seriously offended. I also don't think the professors need to be entertaining. In the end I don't think it's the method but the teacher itself that counts, the mastery over its subject and his ability to transfer the knowledge to his students. Two great teachers of the socratic method I remember form BYU Professor Carl S. Hawkins and Professor Dale Withman among others.


3. Posted by Usha Rodrigues on August 21, 2008 @ 9:03 | Permalink

Wonderful post, Gordon. I've often thought that a problem with any student-evaluation based metric of student learning is that it can't measure "stickiness"--what do students retain 2 years, or 10 years, after graduation? There's also the "I didn't appreciate this at the time, but now that I'm in practice I see how valuable it is" phenomenon.

I'm very interested to see where you take this line of posts.


4. Posted by Gordon Smith on August 21, 2008 @ 14:52 | Permalink

Matt, I responded to your request for more information on the Quality Circle. Thanks for the prod on that.

Rex, I agree completely on the comparison with Germany. My students in Germany looked like deer in the headlights when I asked them questions!

Usha, At Wisconsin, the "Teacher of the Year" award was based on a survey or recent alumni. I thought that was a pretty clever way to incentivize teaching for long-term learning.


5. Posted by Jai on August 23, 2008 @ 5:44 | Permalink

Dont misuse the name of a disability (i.e. Tourettes) just to make your article more interesting. Awful behaviour.

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