Friday, December 23, 2011

The Socratic Method tested

Four Argentinean researchers recently published what might be described as a replication of Socrates' own form of the Socratic method. Andrea P. Goldin, Laura Pezzatti, Antonio M. Battro, and Mariano Sigman, From Ancient Greece to Modern Education: Universality and Lack of Generalization of the Socratic Dialogue, 5 Mind, Brain, and Education 180 (2011). 2400 years ago, as they observe (I admit I haven't gone back to check Plato's account myself), Socrates taught Meno's slave how to create a square with twice the area of another square, by asking the slave a series of questions designed to help the slave come to recognize the method that needed to be used. The authors report that many of the 58 contemporary Argentineans to whom they presented the same problem, and the same questions, made the same error as Meno's slave did (the mistake was to think that doubling the length of each side of the square would double the total area; in fact, doing that quadruples the square's area). The persistence of this mistake is a particularly clear proof of the continuing frailty of human reasoning, and that's interesting in itself, notably for the doubt it raises about "the efficacy of the modern educational system" (at 183).

But the authors also report that "to our great surprise," when the experimental subjects were asked to double the size of a new square at the end of the Socratic dialogue, "more than half of the adolescents (57.1%) and almost one third of the adults (32.4%) ... failed to respond correctly." (182) The authors says that "[o]ur observation of a lack of generalization in a strict Socratic dialogue extends a broad literature which has questioned the efficacy of unguided education, despite their broad popularity and intuitive appeal." (183)

The idea that the Socratic method, so central to traditional law teaching, might be demonstrably ineffective has a certain ironic appeal. But actually I think the lesson of the piece is rather different.
It certainly seems fair to say that one exposure to the Socratic method often is not enough to enable a student to acquire a skill and be able to apply it to new problems (even very similar ones). But why should it be? Meno's slave, and the students in this experiment, had no opportunity to practice what they had learned. Socrates could have returned to the task of teaching his student the following day, with a new square as the subject, and could have reminded the student then of the insights of their previous discussion. That's the sort of approach that seems likely to help someone digest a lesson more deeply and learn the special skill of "transferring" that lesson to new contexts.

Meanwhile it is perfectly possible that Socrates' approach, with the benefit of enough repetitions, will have another effect -- namely that it will help the student to really understand why (as the lesson shows) one can double a square's volume by creating a square with sides equal in length to the original square's diagonal.  That insight might mean that the student is better able to go on to master deeper and more intricate problems, because his or her knowledge is based on more than simply memorization of prescribed rules.

I don't want to overstate the case for the Socratic method. It might very well be that for many students a bit of straightforward instruction, followed by drills, would eventually produce a mastery just as firm and just as comprehending as the approach I've just imagined. All that I think is clear is that the Argentinean experiment by itself doesn't prove the superiority of any such alternative. (Nor do the authors assert that it does.)

It is intriguing, meanwhile, to see that the authors view the Socratic dialogue as "probably one of the most emblematic examples of education in a minimally guided environment, in which learners must discover or construct essential information for themselves." (183) I wouldn't describe Socratic dialogue as "minimally guided," but the authors' implicit comparison to many other forms of education is instructive. Socratic dialogue, at times an elaborate performance starring the professor (as my friend Bob Dinerstein has recently noted), can also be a process in which students take responsibility for their own learning, far more than they do in a class where the prescribed lessons are all spelled out. The Socratic method in law school has even been described as a form of skills teaching, in which students learn the skill of legal reasoning precisely by performing it themselves. Clinical teaching -- sometimes seen as the humane and practical response to Socratic tyranny and abstraction -- itself is often quite Socratic, as professors supervising cases may firmly resist giving students instruction and instead ask question after question.

So does the Socratic method pass its test? I think the answer is that we have more questions to ask.

Friday, December 16, 2011

How long does law school need to be?

Is three years enough time to train a future lawyer?

One answer is another question: what does it mean to say a future lawyer has been trained?

And one answer to that second question is: "a lawyer is trained when she is ready to practice law on her own." There is a logic to this answer: a law degree in the US entitles you to take the bar exam and, if you pass it and your state's character test, you are legally entitled to practice law. There are a few areas of law for which some additional credential is absolutely required, but not many.

But in fact, as a colleague of mine has said, no one in his right mind would hire such a lawyer to handle important matters if he had the money to choose someone he trusted. Nor would any senior lawyer hand over difficult cases to a new subordinate without further training and supervision -- again, assuming the lawyer's organization had the resources for these steps.

Whether or not law school should prepare people to practice on their own, in other words, it seems that few believe it does. One way to understand that consensus is to say that it seems to be widely felt that three years is not enough.

More precisely, it seems to be widely felt that three years of law school as currently constituted is not enough.

The next question (for my next post) is  "how much more -- or different -- do we need?"

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The smart move for underdogs

What's the smart move for underdogs? Malcolm Gladwell provided an answer in an essay called "How David Beats Goliath: When Underdogs Break the Rules," published in The New Yorker of May 11, 2009. As the title indicates, the smart move is not to play by the powerful players' rules. The big boys by definition are the ones who prospered under the rules, and quite likely they're also the ones who wrote them. So it stands to reason that if the rules remain unchallenged, those who are already doing well under them will continue to do so.

There are limits to the force of this lesson. It may be the smart move to lie, cheat or kill, in a world where powerful people don't need to do those things (that may not be our world, but that's another story) -- but lying, cheating and killing are still moral wrongs. Moreover, the rules may be set up more or less fairly: in a democracy, there is some real chance that insurgent political groups will be able to win power within the rules; and in a well-regulated capitalist state, a new competitor may be able to triumph over established industries (see Microsoft, Google, Apple).

So Gladwell's lesson isn't a mandate for immoral action or for anarchy. But it is a guide to the smart move within those limits. Thus David and Goliath: David brought an unexpected tactic, the slingshot, and an intensity of effort (Gladwell quotes the Bible: "And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine") that overcame Goliath. So also Gladwell's extended lesson on the power of the full-court press in basketball -- it requires a lot of effort but disables stronger opponents. So also guerrilla warfare. Those less-powerful actors who are willing to depart from existing conventions do well, while their counterparts who meet the powerful on the powerful's terms lose.

Why don't more people try the smart, underdog move? Gladwell's answer: "The coaches who came to Louisville [where Rick Pitino's college teams practiced the full court press] sat in the stands and watched that ceaseless activity and despaired. The prospect of playing by David's rules was too daunting. They would rather lose." That sounds like laziness, and that alone may be part of the answer. In many circumstances it is acceptable to be mediocre, and playing by the winner's rules will make weaker teams dependably mediocre.

But Gladwell's own account indicates there's more to it than that. He also writes that "[w]e tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It's the other way around. Effort can trump ability ... because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination." This observation suggests that the weak stay with the approach of the powerful because they believe that the approach of the powerful is actually superior. The weak want to be like the strong. Or, put differently, they envy the strong and believe that by becoming like them they can triumph over them. And they believe this strongly enough to discount evidence that suggests the smart move is to become unlike their competitors -- a feat of reasoning fallibility that appears to be absolutely typical of how people think.

There surely is one other problem. Even if we free ourselves from the tyranny of the conventional, we haven't yet figured out the right unconventional move. Or at least we may not have -- the utility of some moves in some contexts, like the full court press in basketball, may now be perfectly clear if we have eyes to see with. In other settings, however, the smart move (or moves -- of course there may be more than one) may not be easy to discern, and certainly many unconventional moves will turn out to be dumb as well. So the question for law schools that aren't prospering by the current rules is: what's the smart move? I'll work on that in future posts.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Rawls and clinics

A thoughtful observer, responding to the latest wave of criticism of legal education, argues that clinical legal education -- though valuable -- isn't anything like the cure. What concerns this observer is the likelihood that students will become so absorbed in the press of practice in clinics that they will not accomplish something else they need to do, namely to engage deeply with critical perspectives, such as the philosophy of John Rawls, that will help them to judge how to act and what to seek in the world they will soon enter.

I think it is undeniable that clinics are not the place for a deep engagement with Rawls. That's equally true, of course, of a contracts course that focused on the details of modern contract doctrine -- even though some of Rawls' writing falls in the tradition of social contract thinking. As a general proposition, a deep engagement with philosophy requires ... a deep engagement with philosophy, and no course whose focus is on legal doctrine or legal practice will be likely to provide room for that kind of study.

Whether the same is true for other perspectives from beyond the law that students might need to study on their way to being lawyers may be more debatable. A clinic or a seminar focused on a public policy problem -- say, the treatment of homeless people in this country, or the involuntary hospitalization of the mentally ill -- may be an excellent place for students to encounter issues of sociology, psychology and public policy. These or other courses may also provide opportunities to study the interaction of law and economics. Certainly not every clinic will explore issues like these in depth (nor will every nonclinical seminar), but some can.

I'm more concerned, though, with Rawls and with moral philosophy. Clinics present many issues that call for moral judgments by lawyers and law students, but in the clinics -- as, I assume, in most lawyers' day-to-day practice -- these judgments are not made primarily by working through the views articulated by great philosophers. Presumably they're not made this way by most lawyers in practice either, nor by most people in their daily lives. Does the fact that clinic students are doing what practicing lawyers do amount to a defense?

Arguably not. One might respond that it is precisely because most people don't approach problems this way that our common solutions to problems are so flawed. Or one might say that while most people outside of schools don't address issues this way, it's the function of schools to provide learners with a foundation that they will be able to utilize, perhaps without even consciously being aware they are doing so, in the years to come.

I don't want to deny entirely the force of these responses. In particular, I do agree that school is a time to step back from what is immediate and seemingly self-evident, to challenge one's own thinking and develop judgments that are deeper than those with which one began. That function is probably a reason why the preparation for practice should not be all practice, since it is difficult -- not impossible, but difficult -- to challenge one's own thinking in the very midst of applying it.

But at the same time I don't think it is possible to show that the way people achieve mature morality is by academic study. Academic study does shed light, but much of it what it does is to induce confusion, and that confusion isn't likely to be fully resolved in any one course, or even any series of courses. Meanwhile, growth as a moral person may proceed on quite different paths -- through empathetic response to suffering, for example. Growth as a social thinker may be the result as much of growth in one's personal relationships as of growth in one's academic mastery of the relevant issues.

So in the end I don't think the fact that clinics are not the place to learn Rawls, or more generally the place to explore extra-disciplinary perspectives on law, should dissuade us from thinking -- as the current critique of law schools urges -- about how to make our schools more practice-oriented. And when we turn to that task, it seems to me that the claim of clinics (and other skills courses) is a powerful one: to learn to practice, one must practice.