Is the Socratic Method Unethical?

Do we ask too many questions when we teach, or too few?

Posted Jul 27, 2018

Among the many teaching techniques I am not good at (yet) is asking good questions. I’m trying to cut down on GWOMM questions, I do OK at getting some discussion going, and I can generally ask a follow-up question or two to help a student think a little more critically. But my students and I might benefit from the Socratic Method. This method, which you might remember from The Paper Chase, involves teaching almost entirely by asking a series of probing questions. “In Socratic teaching we focus on giving students questions, not answers. We model an inquiring, probing mind by continually probing into the subject with questions” (Paul & Elder, 1997). The method appears to be most popular in law schools, where critical thinking, and arguing in front of judges and juries, are essential skills that students need to learn.

Of course, the Socratic Method is not unethical per se. (You can stop reading now if you’ve gotten what you clicked for…) However, like any professional procedure, it can be employed in ways that are disrespectful, harmful, and unjust. Let’s take a look at the method through the lens of ethics—to (a) help us use the method in the best possible ways, (b) illustrate how an ethics lens works for exploring any teaching behavior, and (c) keep my ethics chops in shape.  

Competence

Psychotherapy is not merely a friend asking you, “How do you feel?” Likewise, Socratic questioning is not just asking random questions and hoping for the best. Rather, it is a professional skill set that we must develop and practice. Paul & Elder (1997) list some of the skills involved: 

A Socratic questioner should: 
a) keep the discussion focused
b) keep the discussion intellectually responsible
c) stimulate the discussion with probing questions
d) periodically summarize what has and what has not been dealt with and/or resolved
e) draw as many students as possible into the discussion.

Thus, the first ethical issue is competence. I’ll need to get some training, supervision, and/or consultation in this method, huh?

Beneficence:  Doing Good

Like all professionals, teachers are obligated to provide benefit to the people with whom they work. Thus we need to make sure that we use the Socratic Method in ways that actually help students develop their skills in critical thinking, argument, and thinking “in a disciplined, intellectually responsible manner” (Paul & Elder, 1997). This means preparation, which means effort. “An excellent Socratic class requires more preparation, thought, and energy, even the seventh time you do it, than a lecture, even the first time you do it” (Wesson, 1990).  No shortcuts to competence.

Nonmaleficence:  Do No Harm

The Paper Chase may have exaggerated a bit, but there are risks involved in the Socratic Method. As the Princeton Review says:  “At its worst, the Socratic Method subjects an unprepared student to ruthless scrutiny and fosters an unhealthy adversarial relationship between an instructor and his [sic] students.” Some students report the Socratic method to be the worst part of law school (Wesson, 1990). One student, for example, said that the method was “an excuse for professors to be unprepared with any thoughts of their own so they just ask questions and pick your answers apart.” Another student reported “feeling manipulated, like you’re just a puppet whose strings are being pulled until you say what the professor wants to hear.” These comments show that the Socratic Method runs the risk of being (or being perceived as) disrespectful, ineffective, and evidence of professor incompetence, malice, or laziness. 

Of course, we do not know how typical these comments are, and how much they might be a function of professor incompetence, student misperception, and/or other factors. However, we are obligated to maximize benefits and minimize risks. The potential for benefit is so great that we may be willing to sacrifice some aspects of traditional classrooms, such as total comfort, “covering material” via lecture (Wesson, 1990), and allowing students to catch up on their sleep.

Respect

Wesson (1990) highlights three qualities of a good Socratic class: trust, reciprocity, and a willingness to give up “covering material” in the interest of developing skills. Trust means that “the student knows that the professor will not humiliate … or castigate.” Reciprocity means that professors will learn from their students and are “willing to answer as well as to ask questions” when that would be beneficial. Practicing skills in class rather than covering material is primarily a matter of beneficence and nonmaleficence, because learning skills demands such practice. Trust and reciprocity, however, focus more on respecting students.

One way to foster respect and trust (and, by the way, simultaneously make are teaching more beneficial) is to be transparent. Just as psychotherapists are obligated to provide patients with information about the benefits, risks, and processes of therapy (Handelsman, 2001), professors should tell students about the Socratic Method, such as:  what’s going to happen, why, what students will get out of the experience, the risks involved, and how it may feel. The syllabus is a good place to convey this information (Handelsman, Rosen, & Arguello, 1987).

Justice

In RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that the (few) women in her law school classes were not called upon. To be most ethical, professors need to treat students fairly. For example, they should be equally respectful of all students and not target students for particularly harsh or soft treatment. I’ve written before about using explicit methods to call on students randomly, rather than choosing students whom we dislike or students who we know are prepared and will make us look good.  

We’ve just scratched the surface. I need someone to question me, competently and compassionately, to help me think more critically about using the Socratic Method.

References

Handelsman, M. M. (2001). Accurate and effective informed consent. In E. R. Welfel & R. E. Ingersoll (Eds.), The Mental Health Desk Reference (pp. 453-458). New York: Wiley.

Handelsman, M. M., Rosen, J., & Arguello, A. (1987). Informed consent of students: How much information is enough? Teaching of Psychology, 14, 107-109.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (1997, April). Socratic Teaching. The Foundation for Critical Thinking. Retrieved from http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/socratic-teaching/606.

Wesson, M. (1990). Use of the Socratic Method. In M. A. Shea (Ed.). On teaching (Volume 2). Boulder, CO: Faculty Teaching Excellent Program, University of Colorado at Boulder.