This Article presents a case study of adapting the Socratic method to teach critical-thinking skills underemphasized in Chinese universities and group competency skills underemphasized at U.S. institutions. As we propose it here, Multilevel Socratic teaching integrates various levels of individual, small group, and full-class critical inquiry, offering distinct pedagogical benefits in Eastern and Western cultural contexts where they separately fall short. After exploring foundational cultural differences underlying the two educational approaches, this Article reviews the goals, methods, successes, and challenges we encountered in the development of an adapted “Multilevel Socratic” method, concluding with recommendations for further application in both contexts. It is co-authored by an American law professor and four Chinese university students: an undergraduate, a master’s degree candidate, a doctoral candidate, and an experienced lecturer in law pursuing advanced graduate studies. The Socratic method, popularized in American law schools, emphasizes the presentation of problems for discussion rather than material for memorization.1 In the United States, law professors typically engage in Socratic dialogue with a series of individual students in the presence of a large class, inviting each student to individually consider questions that probe the rationales, implications, and alternatives of various ideas.2 A Socratic teacher engages her students in strategic intellectual debate, forcing them to challenge the reasoning behind her purported conclusions, theirs, and the conclusions of other students. Ideally, the method facilitates an interactive classroom in which lively discussions stimulate engagement, participation, and epiphany.3 Yet cultural norms in Chinese and other Eastern societies occasionally clash with the classroom roles required by the method, which compromises its effectiveness at engaging student participation and stimulating learning.4 Such norms discourage students from challenging the teacher, engaging in apparent confrontation with other students, taking public risks, volunteering, or even calling attention to themselves or their own ideas.
In this Article, we share our experiences from our multiple perspectives as American and Chinese teachers and Chinese students at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. None of us claim special expertise in pedagogical research beyond that which we have maintained as committed teachers and learners. However, and in the spirit of answering prior calls for “thick description” from the field, we hope that the case study we offer will be a valuable addition to the overall discourse—especially that exploring the complex intersections between teaching, learning, and culture.
Erin Ryan, Xin Shuai, Yuan Ye, You Ran, and Li Haomei,
When Socrates Meets Confucius: Teaching Creative and Critical Thinking Across Cultures Through Multilevel Socratic Method,
92 Neb. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol92/iss2/4