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When Socrates Meets Confucius: Teaching Creative and Critical Thinking Across Cultures Through Multilevel Socratic Method

Erin Ryan, Lewis & Clark Law School

Abstract

This article presents a case study of adapting the Socratic Method, popularized in American law schools, 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, the article reviews the goals, methods, successes, and challenges 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.

In tailoring the traditional method for use in China, our most significant modification was to adapt Socratic dialogue for use with peer-learning groups, rather than focusing exclusively on individuals in series. Together with other participatory learning exercises, we balanced opportunities for students to brainstorm in partnerships and to think independently through problems posed by the instructor in the traditional Socratic style, rotating frequently.

Multilevel Socratic dialogue maintains traditional Socratic strengths in inculcating creative and critical thinking skills but re-engineers classroom dynamics to engage wider participation and a wider range of skills. The method provides a safe forum for student experimentation before ideas are volunteered to the large group, offering substantial benefits in a classroom of students reluctant to be singled out for cultural or other reasons. Of additional benefit to Chinese students, it reduces the risks of direct personal confrontation while still enabling a vigorous exchange of ideas. Of benefit to both Chinese and American students, it also ensures that every student participates actively in Socratic reasoning, rather than the select few that are called on directly in any given class. In all cultures, it can improve the experience of students potentially marginalized by race, gender, or ideology. Of particular benefit to American students, it also provides opportunities for students to work on potentially underdeveloped teamwork, collective creativity, and other group competency skills, adding an additional layer of peer accountability to motivate more disciplined student performance.

Suggested Citation

Erin Ryan. "When Socrates Meets Confucius: Teaching Creative and Critical Thinking Across Cultures Through Multilevel Socratic Method" Nebraska Law Review 92 (2013): 289.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/erin_ryan/23