All of the People, All of the Time
Brian has outlined a debate for the two of us with help from all those who would like to add comments. And I'm on board. But, before he carries us away, I would like to give a little preamble about the comments of the student just quoted by Brian. There is no doubt that the law school curriculum works very well for some people. This cannot be lost in our conversation about reform. As an example, let me share some of the opinions about the Socratic Method that have been shared with me.
Our first-year curriculum is dominated by large lecture classes taught with some version of the Socratic Method*. Generally speaking, this is when a professor asks a student questions to elicit the points that the professor would like to make. This method usually involves some amount of "cold calling" which has the purpose of motivating students to be prepared for class.
This method works for some people because the chance to participate and test one's own knowledge creates an active learning environment, which I believe is key to learning. This is particularly true when there is a real and constant threat of being called on because the student's attention is peaked by the need to be ready to answer questions at any moment. Moreover, this same threat motivates students to be prepared for class.
However, for other students this is a terrifying experience. The constant fear of being called on is somewhat debilitating. The pressure to perform makes it difficult to concentrate on the reading material, even when studying at home. There is social science data that suggests that for these students there is lower knowledge retention and that such student feel very uncomfortable in classes that use the Socratic Method. In short, it is a bad educational experience in any of the normal ways of measuring.**
How does one provide an educational method that deals with these two types of students? I personally think those faculties who use a great variety of methods tend to be most effective. Cold call on students for half an hour, then try breaking up into teams to do a role playing exercise. Then, maybe assign some people to do a demonstration and ask for critique from the rest of the class. Maybe a fieldtrip. The possibilities are great and hardly explored. My point is that it does not have to be an either/or situation (though I'd say that when one uses the Socratic Method, then it should be done with cold calling).
One difficulty is that faculty are supposed to cover a certain amount of material (a certain number of concepts) in a course and some of these alternative methods may make it more difficult to feel confident that this is happening. Apparently, it requires a bit of faith to believe that you can use the problem method instead of the case method, or a role playing exercise rather than the Socratic Method. Again, a mix of methods might be best and maybe not done all by the same professor in a single course.
*I hate the use of this term here because it is at best a perversion of what Socrates actually did, which was, basically, attempt to help people see the internal contradictions in the beliefs people had about important things. The "internal contradictions" part was important because Socratic (or Platonic) epistemological theory is based on the idea that no one can teach you anything - you have to learn it. In today's terms, this would mean (roughly or at least in part) that there is no such thing as "passive learning." If you want to teach somebody something, then you have to find someway to motivate them to learn, because just telling them stuff is relatively ineffective. Socrates' method was to help people see that their beliefs had internal, logical inconsistencies. This realization creates a powerful motive to learn because you are not arguing against someone else, but rather against yourself, and you honestly believe both sides. What Socrates does then is a matter of the greatest philosophical debate with boundaries that extend through most of philosophy, and divide philosophy departments across the world. And, maybe not relevant at all to legal education.
**Responses that some faculty members have taken is to avoid cold calling altogether or to modify their calling method so that it is in some way more predictable. This certainly helps to reduce the anxiety of being called on at any moment, but also largely destroys the active learning benefits associated with that same anxiety.On a related note, some people attempt to defend aggressive methods of cold calling by arguing that students need to face their fears of spontaneous, public, oral argument because, as an attorney, they will be called upon to do this regularly - that the very nature of education is to learn to do things at which you are bad. The obvious response is that there are many - if not most - legal careers that require no spontaneous, public, oral arguing, and that even in court it is very rare that cold calling will be like it is in a Socratic Method class (i.e., judges tend to be much more relaxed than Walter Dickey).