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Socratic Method

Socratic Method is a dialectal method of teaching or discussion made popular by

Socrates. Most are acquainted with Socrates through the work of his student, Plato, who wrote a
famous series of dialogues based on Socrates habit of questioning and debating others about
philosophical matters. In a typical Socratic dialogue, Socrates will ask a person to define a
generalized and ambiguous concept, such as piety or love. After the answer is given, Socrates
will follow up with another question aimed at revealing a contradiction in the response, an
exception to it, or something else that is problematic. The questioning and answering then
continues until one has the impression that there are no clear answers.
The method involves asking questions that guide the answerer to a logical conclusion. It
is the art or practice of forcing arguments to be examined with an unrelenting logical process in
order to test their soundness and validity.

Two styles of Socratic Method:
Classic Socratic Method the more Socratic style.
- Its result is a failure to find a satisfactory answer to the primary question.
- It only intends to achieve deconstruction of definition based on the
answers to the series of question and divulge the contradictions.
Modern Socratic Method If after the questioning and answering, the respondent found
a satisfactory answer, there is a transition to Modern method.
- A process of inductive questioning used to successfully lead a person to
knowledge through small steps.

Socratic Method of teaching law
Socratic Method is used in law schools because it develops a number of skills and is an
excellent instructional tool. First, it teaches students to think quickly. The questions posed by
professors during class are designed to demonstrate an understanding (or lack thereof) of the
issues in play in a particular case. The experience of being put on the spot is a way of training the
students as it is a lot like the experience of representing a client in a courtroom or leading a
corporate negotiation. The student cant truly prepare for the professors questions and must
respond to them as they come. It challenges and trains the student to be quick-witted and
challenged them to carefully articulate their thoughts. Although some law students find the
process intimidating or humiliating, when done correctly by a great professor, the Socratic
Method can actually produce a lively, engaging, and intellectual classroom atmosphere.
Another skill students develop through use of the Socratic Method is logic or critical
thinking. Teachers using Socratic Method ask students question after question, seeking to
expose contradictions in the students thoughts and ideas to then guide them to arrive at a solid,
tenable conclusion. The principle underlying the method is that students learn through the use of
critical thinking, reasoning, and logic, finding holes in their own theories and then patching them
Law school professor use Socratic Method to give the students a double-barreled
exercise teaching the fundamentals of substantive law but doing it in such a way that the
student is exposed to the daily drills in legal logic.
In many of the classic cases studied in law school, for instance in the field of
Constitutional Law, the dissent presents a case that is analytically as strong as (if not stronger
than) the majority opinion. Students working through Socratic questioning will learn that there
are two or more sides to almost any issue, and a competent lawyer is able to persuasively
articulate all of them. In order to develop into such an attorney, students must become skilled at
finding the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments and positions. The rapid-fire
questioning of the Socratic Method is perfect for sharpening this skill.
In addition, the use of the method in law schools serves as a preparation for the students
because in the practice of law, Socratic Method is utilized in analyzing written and oral
arguments. Judges also use the Socratic Method in open court to test the soundness of oral


Who questions much shall learn much and retain much Sir Francis Bacon
Sometimes questions are more important than answers.- Nancy Willard

Socrates, Reinvented

Samuel Johnson wrote, He that teaches us anything which we knew not before is
undoubtedly to be revered as a master. Tha maieutic andragogy, in its purest unadaulterated
form, has caused students to crave for knowledge not supplied by stoical mentors due to the
relentless barrage of questions and the conspicuous absence of profound answers to those
queries. Students are left wondering how the imponderable issues of the day should be shackled.
To remedy the situation, the University of the Philippines College of Law used a hybrid of
Socratic pedagogy. It describes the method of instruction used by its law professors as follows:
The instruction is by the question- and- answer method accompanied by discussion. The method
seeks to enable the student to understand the vital points in the assignment, to develop analytical
faculty, to engender a critical attitude with respect to the rules, conclusions, or theories. This
form of modified Socratic method is used whether the class is studying a textbook, a court
decision, or a statutory provision. The purely lecture method is rarely used.
It is not always this way at U.P. Back in the 1950s, Rafael Salas, a Sigma Rhoan who
became the president of the U.P Student Council, had another experience when he was a law
student. Salas wrote, In place of dialogue and argument, they made us do tremendous amount of
memorization. Codal provisions, sections of laws pages and pages of text had to be committed to
memory. Even professorial opinions had to be memorized! In addition, the student had to read
fast and digest fast. From ten to fifteen legal cases were daily assigned to be read in two to three
subjects. This meant hours and hours of drudging the library. The training invariably produced
graduates who were fast readers with excellent memories but who lacked the intellectual breadth
of those trained in a more inductive manner. (Nick Joaquin, The World of Rafael Salas, p. 50,
Justice Irene R. Cortes, former dean of U.P. College of Law wrote in Essays on Legal
Education (1994) that the modified Socratic Method followed in the Philippine Law schools
utilizes assigned provisions of law, court decisions, or readings from textbooks and other
materials as bases for classroom discussion. Usually the teacher briefly introduces the subject
then calls on students to answer questions based on the assignment. Cortes also explored the
dangers and benefits of this modified Socratic method of instruction, depending on the skill of
professor handling the class. Under a perceptive law teacher, she wrote, the questions can be
searching and though provoking. These can test the students understanding of the principles and
rules of law. Hypothetical cases can be posed, variations of factual situations presented and
probable solutions to legal problems be elicited. This can spur students to think instead of simply
attempting to recall the assigned readings. The method can draw out active participation among
However, Cortes warned that an inept law professor can turn the modified Socratic
Method into a catechistic exercise. An indifferent or unimaginative law professor can easily
cause the degeneration of the class session into a big joke. The Bookish teacher, she wrote,
frames questions on the assignments and expects answers to be a faithful rendition of the textual
and other materials. Trained by rote, the students later become helpless with slight deviations
from what they had learned. In this grim scenario, the law students become automatons and
depositories of knowledge, with the law professor acting as the depositor. The Learning process
is stunted and retrogressive.
The unintended results of the Socratic method of teaching are generally rationalized by
explaining that the method is meant to acclimate the students to real life, legal reasoning, or
thinking like a lawyer. But it is difficult to see the relationship between the psychic damage
and those stated goals, and one often gets the feeling that the recitation of thinking like a
lawyer has become more a talismanic justification for what is going on than an articulated
educational program (Herber L. Packer and Thomas Ehrlich, New Directions in Legal Education,
p.30 1972)
The greatest Socratic experience is being ahead of your professor at least five to ten
questions away. You can anticipate his queries several minutes before he asks them. You assume
the character of a Kasparov reading the mind of his opponents in chess before they can think of
their next ten moves. The key to matching wits with your professor is being able to know how he
thinks on specific issues and letting him hear what he needs to hear. Law professors who have
been teaching for prolonged period are highly predictable. They are creatures of habit. They
follow certain mental patterns. They are not apt to make drastic changes, unless they are adept
researchers. Most law students have taken notes from their past lectures and syllabi and they
have made copies of these materials in commercial quantities, making a hefty profit out of this
academic piracy.
Do some research on the previous published works and notes of your professor. Learn
abou the books he reads, his likes and pet peeves, his ideological inclinations, even his love
affairs and interests. But do not use it for extorion or bribery. They do not employ the Socratic
Method at the penitentiary.
Professional styles vary. Some will ask you to stand, some will expect you to sit. Some
will be more formal or informal, some courteous, some abrupt or intimidating. You should not
expect these sessions to teach information the same way an undergraduate lecture does. The
expectation is not simply that you learn the rule, but that you will learn how rules evolve. You
will also expand your analytical powers and become accustomed to oral presentations. (LSAT
The Socratic Method (also known as he Socratic Interview) turns professors into stage
actors, playing a skillful game of answer my question if you can. How deep is your mind? is
the nature of the game. The professor pretends to be ignoramus. The method immediately
exposes student learning or lack of it. Often, the professor does not have to pretend he is an
pretentious ignoramus or a pseudo intellectual trying to impress his students by asking esoteric
(or inane) questions even he himself could not answer. But here is a catch: in the Socratic
Method, it is you, not your professor, who must be fully prepared, engaged and ready to convey
In a clash between an immovable object and an irresistible force, somethings got to give
its usually the student who bows in obeisance. It will take more than sheer industry and
dogged determination to score high points in the Socratic game. Before entering the war zone,
you have to hit the books and buckle down to work. Thinking on your feet is tested to the
The Socratic Method is designed to foster critical thinking. It seeks to impel you to enter
the mode of conscious, deliberate, and measured suspension of personal judgment and opinion to
maximize the value of the academic enquiry.
It is your professors role to ask questions that reveal the depth of your learning mastery.
Such an interview can take place during a class discussion or as a part of a formally scheduled
Keep in mind that, although your professor may be professing ignorance, the quest for
instruction is real. Be prepared. Respond in a simple, thoughtful, and straightforward. You
cannot make the grade by winging it. Hesitancy accompanied by an inexcusable lack of
knowledge can become a transparent Socratic Liability more poisonous than hemlock.
(Marquis 83)
Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis, a licensed psychologist in Australia and mental health counselor
in New York, wrote in How to Hug a Porcupine (2009), Think Socrates: The Socratic Method
of teaching depends not on lecture, but on questions. By asking righ questions, you can teach
porcupines around to your point of view, and it may seem like they got there all by themselves.
This is one way of encouraging students to open up.

Preparing for Socratic Method (Aldisert)
a. Read through the whole assignment without getting bogged down in the intricacies of each
a. Identify the following:
The Parties,
The Issues,
And run-through of the reasoning.
b. Follow an Informal Checklist
e.g. What did the plaintiff ask for at the trial and on what grounds?
What position did the defendant take?
How did the trial judge decide the case?
Who took the appeal and on what grounds?
What is the question or issue in the case?
What are the relevant facts?
What is the courts decision?
What are the grounds for the decision?
What is the rule of law in the case?
c. Understand the subject matter of the Assignment
d. Brief the Case
Procedural posture/ Action
Relevant facts
The Issue
Rule of Law
e. Reread all your briefs in the assignment immediately before the class.
f. Class discussion
A law students preparation for the Socratic Method discussion
concentrated on three considerations:
o A case has little significance in itself.
o The importance of the case derives from its relationship to other cases
in the continuous process of decision- making.
o Ask himself/herself continuously how each case is related to the
Think Inductively.
o Decide if the rule of the case applies to the facts in the hypothetical.
Tell the professor how or why by analogizing the holdings in
the previous cases apply or do not apply to the hypothetical.
Anticipate the hypothetical.
o Slightly alter selected facts in the case to determine whether new
perspective, a different rule of law or result are required.
Think Deductively.
o When the professor hypothetically changes a fact in the case under
discussion or in a previous case, will the holding and rule of law still
o The law student must marshall arguments why the same conclusion
will apply and why not.
When in doubt and often even when certain about the correct answer to
the professors question, just say: It depends.
o The law involves a substantially influential element of uncertainty and
few, if any, absolute truths.
Be prepared to discuss the variables upon which the outcome
of the case may pivot.
Value judgments
Personal biases in interpreting rules of law and identifying
relevant facts.
Identify the following:
o categorial deductive syllogism use by the opinion writer The major
premise, minor premise and conclusion.
o Where did the major premise come from? If not from fat precedent,
statute or constitutional clause, did it emerge from inductive reasoning
induced generalization or analogy?
o The subject of the minor premise is usually the facts found by the fact-
finder. Is it identical to or properly a part of the class represented by
the middle term (Usually the subject) of the major premise? Here often
you will be resorting to analogy. How do the resemblances in the
material facts stack up? The differences?
Engage in group interaction.
o To have valuable practice and seasoning in Socratic Method.
o To gain confidence before being exposed to the stage fright in the
classroom dialogue between the law student and the professor.

Aldisert, Ruggero J. Logic for Lawyers: A Guide to Clear Legal Thinking. US: National Institute
for Trial Advocacy, 1997.
Lopez, Jim V. How to Excel in Law School: A Best Practices Guide for Future Lawyers.
Philippines: Brown Madonna Press, Inc., 2010.
Maxwell, Max. Introduction to the Socratic Method
and its Effect on Critical Thinking. Last Updated, 2013. Accessed 10 February 2014.
Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. The Socratic Method: Why Its Important to
the Study of Law. Legal Education. 29 May 2013. Accessed 10 February 2014.
The University of Chicago Law School. The Socratic Method. Studying Law at Chicago.
Accessed 10 February, 2014.