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.


Sherman Dorn said...

I think you're confusing calling on students with the Socratic Method, which is designed to lead to a very specific end, as Rick Garlikov's paper illustrates—his is the first resource link on the UofC Law School page you note.

But your larger point is well taken! See the NEA Advocate Online's discussion this month of college students and reading for another perspective on keeping student attention!

dt said...

Thanks for the Christmas post. Otherwise, I'd have to drive past the mall to go to the library, and since I don't have students to annoy ...

The Socratic approach is great for a lot of reasons. Firstly, it shows respect for kids. For my subject, Government, its ideal because legal logic is so relevant and the students have so much personal motivation to understand a legal system that effects their lives in so many ways. You can imagine the personal case studies we discuss regarding racial profiling, the 4th Amendment, and due process. And when discussing Roe v Wade and parental consent laws, you really get some intimate insights.

The planning required by Socratic questioning dovetails well with the planning approach that helped me. I walk the dog, visualize each student, recall body language, and then predict the various ways they'll respond. Visualizing each student allows me to revisit so many clues to the kids' lives that I overlooked during the busy day.

Getting back to class size, there might be an eight to ten year range in the writing abilities of students in the same class, so its impossible to write suggestions to each. But verbally, you can give guidance to a much larger number.

Sherman, there's plenty of Scoratic hybrids that benenfit from the ethos/rules of public schools. As opposed to the university, we need to honor multiple "right" answers. Students have the right to believe in Creationism and to express that opinion. They don't have the right in class to joke, "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." Questioning allows them to recognize the logic of that distinction.

Its harder with younger students, but by the second semester I can even use Socratic questioning with freshmen. The key is maturity not inteligence or book learning. They all have plenty of understandings that need to be discovered and articulated.

But to again get back to recruiting teachers needed to reduce class size, we can't afford to train every teacher in Socratic approaches as well as all the other approaches. But we have plenty of kids just out of grad school or veteran professionals who have those skills but not an education degree. Like everyone, they would need help in classroom management, but we need to let a diversity of flowers grow.

Finally, a friend in Harvard Law school took me to the class of the professor who was the real-life Paper Chase professor, but he didn't tell me until afterwards. The 23 year-olds were terrified, but being a couple of years older we found him delightful, and I got into an exchange with him. Its been 40 years ago, but as I recall his conclusion was, "it depends on your perspective and your source. At Harvard, we cite the Constitution. At Chicago, they cite Friedman's History of Monetarism. At Yale, they cite 'I'm OK, You're OK.'"

John Thompson

dt said...

Correction. It was 30 years ago. I must be ready to get back to class where I don't need to let facts get in the way of a good story.

NYC Educator said...

Comparing methods used in highly selective law schools with those used in inner city high schools is preposterous indeed. I don't imagine that professor could have dealt with the kids I meet every day on his best day.

It's one thing to challenge adults who've worked their butts off and competed for years to get into prestigious universities, and quite another to get kids who don't read to read, let alone love reading.

Regardless of methodology, the virtues of smaller class sizes for kids are not nearly so complicated as you suggest. Kids need attention, and many will do anything to get any variety of it. Everyone who teaches kids knows that, and I have to suppose anyone who has kids knows that too.

The fewer kids you have to deal with at once, the more likely you are to reach more kids. The fewer kids there are, the more attention each one gets. The fewer kids there are, the more likely the teacher is to detect real problems that need real attention.

Without controlling difficult kids, no learning can take place at all. It's not easy to control those kids, and the widespread assumption that anyone could do it is baseless and idiotic. I've read comments saying hire a CPA, give him the math book, and he'll be just fine.

Well, he won’t. And frankly, as engaging as The Paper Chase may have been, its methodology would be far from the best way to win over and motivate teenagers in urban school districts.

There's a lot more work to be done before you start challenging such kids with difficult text questions. The difficulty in achieving this is just one reason why so many flee from teaching kids. I've read more than half of NYC's teachers have fewer than five years of experience.

It's a shame Mayor Bloomberg indulges in superficial, ineffectual nonsense while routinely breaking every promise he's ever made about class size. Just a few weeks ago, he reneged on his promise to eliminate the ubiquitous trailers that litter New York City, and I imagine I'll be in one until I retire.

I'd very much like to see the Professor Paper Chase explain to 34 teenagers in a tin trailer why the AC is out on a 90+ degree day. But until I do, it'll be very tough for me to accept any comparisons of my job with his.

skoolboy said...

nyc educator,
I apologize if I was unclear about my intentions. I did not mean to suggest that teaching in an NYC K-12 classroom is anything like teaching in an elite law school; nor did I mean to suggest that the Socratic Method is an appropriate teaching technique for any classroom in particular. I simply hoped to say that, when it comes to student learning, the effect of a class size reduction depends on teachers teaching differently in a smaller class than they do in a larger class. It seems kind of obvious, but there is evidence that teachers do not necessarily change how they teach in smaller classes. You are right to draw attention to the importance of classroom disruption and the maintenance of order, and the fact that some teachers are much more successful at maintaining classroom order than others.

Diana said...

On a tangent: the "Socratic Method" and the "Socratic Seminar" often have very little to do with Socrates himself. Socrates used "questioning" to unravel his students' reasoning. He was aiming at certain conclusions which he believed more encompassing and truthful than common assumptions of those around him. He was neither "quizzing" the students on their knowledge nor engaging in an open-ended pursuit of truth. He had certain "right answers" in mind. His "dialogues" (assuming they actually took place) were unequal but fascinating.

The "Socratic Method" may, in some contexts, stay true to Socrates' manner of questioning (which, incidentally, did not always follow his stated methods). In other contexts, appears to take the form of an oral quiz, sometimes going deep into the questions, sometimes not.

The "Socratic Seminar" is a strange misnomer that appears to have wedded itself with aspects of the "workshop model." As presented at middleweb.com, Socratic Seminars allow students (even middle-school students) to engage in "cooperative inquiry" (not exactly what Socrates practiced). The teacher is "faciliatator and participant"; he or she intervenes mainly to restate a point or question, question a particular participant, or model the protocol. The "class discussion" has been negatively compared to the "Socratic Seminar" in that the former is mostly teacher talk. This is sad news for those of us who do not condemn or abuse teacher talk, and who have led and participated in rich and lively class discussions for years.

Whatever one's take on "Socratic Questioning" or the "Socratic Seminar," I suggest that students involved in a "Socratic" process read some Plato as a prerequisite.