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A Timeline of the Socratic Method

As we explained in a recent post, the Socratic method is at the heart of many law school experiences in the U.S., at least in the first year of legal education. For those not familiar with the practice, an instructor will ask probing questions of a student, typically as they attempt to explain the holding of a case, with the ultimate objective of helping the student explore hidden contradictions and flaws present in shallow readings of the case or another assigned text.

Hallmarks of the process:

  • On-the-spot analysis
  • Compulsory participation
  • Students grapple with a series of difficult questions
  • There may not be a “right answer”
  • Core values and assumptions are challenged

The Socratic method is named for the Athenian philosopher, Socrates, and dates back roughly to the 400s, B.C. As a mode of inquisition, it may have roots that go much farther back, but Socrates is generally regarded as the father of this type of dialogue. Tracing the history of the Socratic method as it evolved over time is quite difficult, especially for non-historians. We were, however, able to uncover a number of significant events that illuminate some of the steppingstones along the way from antiquity to modernity, as well as the adoption of the Socratic method by legal instructors.

Timeline:

See our interactive timeline below for an illustrated guide to the history of the Socratic Method, from its inception by its namesake, the Greek father of philosophy Socrates, to its rise to prominence in U.S. legal education. Click the arrows next to the images to move left (forward in time) or right (backward) to see images, videos, and more!

Pros Supporters of the Socratic method generally claim that the method is an effective way to teach critical thinking skills, especially under pressure.  They might also state that students generally become better at identifying the unstated assumptions that underpin arguments, making them better debaters and participants in the adversarial legal process.

  • Improves thinking on your feet
  • Sharpens critical thinking skills
  • Drives home the need for preparation and deep analysis

Cons Opponents of the Socratic method usually focus their criticism on the amount of pressure applied to a student during Socratic examination.  Students are involuntarily compelled to participate in a Socratic dialogue during class time.  The experience can be a humbling and embarrassing one, even for intelligent, well-prepared students.

  • High-pressure experience may not lead to student progress
  • Encouraging, supportive methods may be equally effective
  • Students are forced to participate rather than being able to volunteer

Timeline Courtesy of @WashULaw, Washington University in St. Louis’s online LLM degree program.