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Legal Education Digest

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Torrey, M --- "You Call That Education?" [2005] LegEdDig 6; (2005) 13(3) Legal Education Digest 9

You Call That Education?

M Torrey

[2005] LegEdDig 6; (2005) 13(3) Legal Education Digest 9

19 Wisc Women’s L J, Spring 2004, pp 93–114

There is so much wrong with legal education today that it is hard to know where to begin. Just as we all know rampant gender bias exists in our legal institutions, we all know that mainstream legal pedagogy is full of flaws and just plain bad teaching. The situation is reminiscent of the flurry of gender bias in the courts studies that were published over the past twenty years — every one of them documenting extensive sex discrimination. Nothing or very little has changed in response to the gender bias studies.

The Socratic Method advocates seem oblivious to, or else attempt to minimise, the negative side of the very attributes they tout. When the pro-Socratic Method team claims it is an ‘active’ method because a student is responding to a series of questions, they either ignore the fact that the remaining 89 students in the class are passive or they optimistically think that all students are playing along ‘in their head,’ in essence participating ‘vicariously’. In any event, many students report that they are too busy telepathically dissuading the professor from calling upon them next to even consider putting their ego at risk by intervening to assist a fellow student who may be struggling. In fact, the opposite occurs; a Socratic classroom fosters competition, not collaboration and cooperation.

The Problem Method is used frequently as an alternative to case method teaching. The main benefit of the Problem Method usually cited is that it requires students ‘to take more responsibility for their own education’. Other alternatives, or possible supplements to the Socratic Method, are: student reflection papers; use of storytelling to increase student ability to remember materials covered and to empathise; out-of-class assignments; contextualised learning experiences; recognition of the importance of a classroom with racial and gender discourse; reduction of stressors and creation of a more relaxed learning environment; greater functional analysis; mandatory courses in trial skills; increased interim feedback; first-year grading systems based on pass/fail; adaptation from educational theory of a ‘mastery’ learning concept; experiential learning; greater attention to the racial dynamics in the classroom; simulated exercises; small group problems; role playing; discussion break-out groups which re-convene to the larger class; written responses brought to class and shared; online discussions; greater use of computer-aided instruction; creation of community; and collaborative and cooperative learning exercises.

All of these alternatives, however, may be perceived as piecemeal solutions to the larger problems of legal education. Many feminist and critical race theorists argue that pedagogy is only one of many needed reforms. Nonetheless, many of these concerned teachers believe that gender and racial bias interfere with learning in ways that ethical and professional teachers cannot ignore. They advocate teaching from a perspective more conscious of white privilege and less masculinist.

Overwhelming evidence exists that, not only are there much better ways to teach, and to learn, than the Socratic Method, but also that the Socratic Method actually may negatively impact the learning environment for certain groups. It has been noted that female students who display a lack of confidence in the Socratic classroom often excel when taught in a less confrontational manner. One study concluded that ‘female students may negatively react to the Socratic Method because they are resistant to what they perceive as “narrow-mindedness” in an approach where the professor is always right.’ With the increasing diversity of the law student body, law teachers need to develop better, more fair, ways to teach. Fortunately, there is an extraordinary body of scholarship developing and describing alternative pedagogies. All it takes is a commitment to provide the best legal education possible for all students.

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