Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Class size and "The Paper Chase"
Although I haven’t seen it in a long while, one of my favorite films is The Paper Chase, which stars Oscar-winning John Houseman as the crusty Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., who terrorizes a class of first-year students at Harvard Law School. Kingsfield thunders, “You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer!” – a line I’ve toyed with paraphrasing for the benefit of my own students (who are not, thankfully, studying to be lawyers). The Paper Chase was fiction, but it accurately portrays how large law school classes are taught using the Socratic Method, in which the instructor engages the class by calling on individual students unexpectedly to respond to questions or to discuss legal cases. The process obliges all students to be well-prepared, and encourages them to compare what they hear other students say in class to what they might have said had they been the ones called upon instead. At the University of Chicago, the 190 entering first-year law students are enrolled in one of two sections of Civil Procedure, for an average class size of 95 students. Using the Socratic Method, an instructor can engage virtually all of the students in a class of 95 or larger.
Of course, elite law schools are highly selective institutions, filled with highly-motivated and talented students. I’m not suggesting that the Socratic Method portrayed so memorably in the Paper Chase (and in Scott Turow’s autobiographical account of his first year at Harvard Law School, One-L) is an instructional panacea. (Indeed, the University of Chicago goes out of its way to dissociate itself from that imagery. Their law school website states, “Perhaps because of its over-the-top portrayal in the 1973 movie The Paper Chase, the very mention of the Socratic Method strikes fear in the hearts of those considering attending law school. John Houseman may have won an Oscar for his impressive performance, but if anyone ever did teach a law school class like his Professor Kingsfield, no one at Chicago does today.” Methinks they doth protest too much!)
No, my point is a simpler one. We cannot understand the effect of class size on student learning without a deep understanding of the instructional strategies and techniques employed by the teacher. Most accounts of the mechanisms by which class size reduction might improve student learning depend on teachers teaching differently in smaller classes than in larger classes. The Socratic Method might work as well in a large class as in a small class; but that won't be true of all instructional approaches.