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Surviving the Socratic Method


You have to admit, it’s a fairly impressive legacy. Even though he lived over 2,400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates, still manages to make tutorials a terrifying experience for modern day law students, thanks to the Socratic Method.

In a nutshell, the Socratic Method involves the teacher asking students a series of questions to expose contradictions or gaps in knowledge, to get to the heart of an issue or to examine any underpinning philosophical justifications. It’s particularly popular in law school tutorials, where it tends to go a bit like this:

Tutor: Student! What did the Court decide in Bland v Case?

Student: Ummm… That the Government could not reasonably restrict the sale of pogo sticks to people over the age of 18.

Tutor: And why did they decide that?

Student: Because it was against the public interest.

Tutor: When we say public interest, who is the public, and what interests are we talking about?

Student: Uh…

If your tutor is a fan of this ancient philosopher, you can probably expect the Socratic treatment at least once during the semester. The easiest way to survive Socratic tutorials is to do all your readings and consider how you feel about particular cases and the justifications provided for the decisions. Have a mini-debate in your head when doing your class preparation and you’re probably all set for the tutorial.

For years students have been employing the “don’t make eye contact” strategy to avoid being called on to answer class questions. If your tutor likes the Socratic Method, it’s unlikely that this strategy will work for long. Lovers of Socrates tend to make sure that everyone gets called on in class, so you won’t be able to rely on the over-keen students in the front row to keep the heat off you for long.

If you don’t know the answer to a question (gulp!) it’s probably better to just admit it on the spot, rather than try and fudge your way through – if you answer one question, you can be guaranteed that it will be followed by more… and more.

As intimidating as it is, the Socratic Method has its strong points – and it’s here to stay at law schools. All too easily, law could become about rote learning legislation, facts and cases. The Socratic Method forces us to look at why something is or should be a certain way, and makes us really consider what we feel about a particular area of the law. It fosters a deeper understanding of the law, and in some circumstances, a greater passion for it.

Plus law students love to debate, so the opportunity to impress your tutor by having all the answers is particularly appealing.

In addition, the terror of Socrates-inspired classes are always good motivation to do the tutorial preparation. In circumstances where we can’t respond to the tutor’s Socratic torment, it can be pretty embarrassing, but I’ve never forgotten the answers to the questions I had no response for, which I am always retrospectively grateful for when studying for exams.

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