Sunday, August 15, 2010

Guest Post: The Teaching Methods of Higher Education - Sexist or Simply Part of the Profession?

Another great guest post from VikingKitten regarding teaching methods and potential gender bias in graduate schools. Enjoy!

At first glance, graduate education programs seem to be more female-friendly than in years past: female enrollment in graduate programs of traditionally male-dominated fields—such as medicine, law, and business—has significantly risen in recent years, with enrollment in law and medical schools about evenly distributed among genders. However, despite this rise in female enrollment, the teaching methods of these schools have generally remained the same. Does this put women at a disadvantage?

As a law student, I will focus on the teaching method with which I am most familiar—the “Socratic Method”—which, despite its unfortunate misnomer, actually describes the following type of scenario: A law professor will “cold-call” on a student, asking questions about the assigned cases or reading material. The professor will often give the student a tough time and ask many follow-up questions, forcing the student to come up with strong arguments on the spot and to support his/her opinions with clear and logical reasoning.
So, what’s wrong with this method? According to Harvard Professor Lani Guinier, one of the many staunch advocates for the removal of Socratic Method in law schools, the Socratic Method may put women at a disadvantage to men. The basic argument, stemming from Guinier’s 1994 study  and extending into more recent scholarship, is that women learn better in cooperative environments and are more likely to speak up and excel in smaller groups and in more interactive situations. Proponents for the removal of the Socratic teaching method also observe that women tend to take longer than men to formulate answers on the spot, that they tend to feel alienated in the law school setting, and that male students consistently outperform their similarly-situated female counterparts in law school.

Besides the apparent correlation vs. causation counterargument, a further counterargument to Guinier and other critics of the Socratic Method is that the legal profession itself often demands public speaking—whether that means defending one’s position in court or negotiating a deal for a client, and law school should thus prepare students for this. Whether the student is male or female, the skills of thinking quickly on one’s feet and to defend one’s opinions and arguments are helpful and critical in the legal profession (and just generally in life!). The Socratic Method can also be attacked on other grounds, such as its questionable efficacy in preparing students for actual legal practice, but is it an inherently sexist method, the continued use of which puts women at a disadvantage to male students? I argue no.

The teaching methods of other types of graduate schools (with which Femonomics readers may be more familiar than me) have also come under attack recently as their female enrollment has increased: For example, the case method of business schools is often criticized for the lack of emphasis on female role models in the corporate world and in textbook cases (one statistic suggests that there are over 6 times as many women managers in corporations than are proportionately portrayed in business school cases).

What do readers think? With the rising number of female students, do graduate schools need to revamp their textbooks and teaching methods, or would doing so represent a step backward by implying that women cannot compete with men in the system as it exists? Is it time to revamp teaching methods for the 21st century in general?


  1. My sense of this has been best captured by the work of people like Marianne Ferber, Robin Bartlett and others. Aerni et al's (1999) 'Toward a feminist pedagogy in economics' was an important read for me on this topic, as was Bartlett and Ferber's (1998) paper 'Humanizing economic pedagogy' and I wish that more professors would consider the benefits of incorporating a plurality of teaching methods. Unfortunately, my experience in grad school has been that pedagogy continues to favour white males and that many professors remain remarkably disinclined to review their teaching methods, let alone change them.

  2. I don't know. Some of us women love the Socratic method, are good at it, and are perfectly capable of thinking up all manner of things on the spot. I always was. This, to me, is not about gender. There's nothing wrong with introducing a variety of teaching methods, but I don't see why this one has to go altogether.

  3. I wonder if this also explains the obverse...could the movement toward active and cooperative learning in secondary and undergraduate settings explain the failure thrive of male students, particularly African-American males? Or are pedagogies based on competition bad for everyone except a particular subset of male students?


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