—J.H.H. Weiler, NYU School of Law; Co-Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Constitutional Law (ICON)
No preliminaries are necessary here. One result of Covid-19 has been a shift to online teaching by Zoom (or similar platforms). In some law faculties all teaching is online. In most faculties most teaching is online with some hybrid teaching, and in a few (privileged) places in-person teaching remains viable.
It is also a commonplace that most teachers find Zoom teaching inferior to in-person teaching, both from a didactic and a human point of view. The two are oftentimes intertwined.
And yet the impact of Zoom teaching will differ according to one’s style of teaching, and will affect some styles more than others. The challenge in each case, though, is to narrow the quality gap between in-person teaching and Zoom teaching, regardless of the style of teaching adopted.
At one end of the scale are those whose teaching is principally a lecture (with some time for questions at the end perhaps). At the other end are those, like myself, whose teaching, even in large classes, is principally through question and answer – the so-called Socratic method (though I am not sure what Socrates would think of this use of his name and method). Though the class is conducted through Q&A it is, as I tell my students, simply lecturing through their mouths, which has various benefits with which I need not trouble the reader here. I certainly do not want to argue for or against these different poles and the variants in between. Each has its pros and cons.
Grant me, however, that the gap between in-person and Zoom teaching is the narrowest the closer one’s style of teaching is to the formal lecture. In fact, there are several faculties where the online teaching, or significant parts of it, at least in larger classes, is by recorded lectures.
For those whose style of teaching is closer to mine the Zoom challenge seems formidable. Indeed, the challenge for ‘Socratic teachers’ is greater also as regards in-person teaching. It is such a common experience to pose a question to a class and face 60 blank faces. There are so many reasons which explain this type of reticence. The teacher is then faced with a Charybdis and Scylla dilemma. You may rely on the ‘usual suspects’ – those who are always eager to participate. This carries two risks: essentially you are actively teaching only a small number of students while the rest regress to passive mode, pen poised to write down the ‘right answer’ without active mental and verbal engagement. Additionally, there is no correlation between eagerness to participate and quality of answer – a bit like a karaoke party where the microphone is habitually hogged by the tone deaf who are unaware how badly and out of tune they sing.
Alternatively, you can ‘cold call’ on students – even those who have not raised their hands. There is a naming and shaming cost to this method, which breeds resentment, anxiety (will he call on me?) and gives expression to that wise Talmudic saying: the strict cannot teach and the timid cannot learn. I have largely moved away from cold calling.
Here then is the ‘Weiler Method’ for dealing with this dilemma, both in person and on Zoom. When teaching in person, whenever I pose a question that is not trivial and requires some thinking and deployment of analytical and synthetic skills as well as legal imagination, I pose the question, explain it and then say: now, take five minutes to talk to your neighbours. In a 110-minute class this might happen as often as 10-15 times. I explain the benefits to the students: with more time to think and specially to deliberate with one’s colleagues, the answers will be better thought out, substantial and substantive (not telegrams). Additionally, and I explain this too, I instruct them to do something that should become second habit: don’t think only what you want to say but what would be the most effective way to say it. In other words, each exchange is also an exercise in articulate presentation.
There is a third reason for this method, which I do not explain: there is a much greater student willingness to speak and less reticence on my side to call not on an individual but on a group: What did your ‘group’ think? And invariably the answer will start with a ‘We thought’ this or that, spreading the risk, so to speak. I have been doing this for over 25 years and it works for the most part splendidly, even in jurisdictions that are not accustomed to proactive teaching. Students adapt quickly – time to think, group deliberation, answer, and then discussion from other groups and the instructor.
Does one not lose an awful lot of time? Well this goes to one’s philosophy of teaching. I may ‘cover’ less, provide them with less fish, but turn them into extraordinary fishermen and women.
How, then, to adapt this to Zoom? By a very extensive and liberal use of the so-called Breakout Rooms (I call them Discussion Rooms – breakout makes me think my class is a prison). With a single click Zoom will allocate the students in an arbitrary fashion to as many discussion rooms as the instructor elects. I determine the number so that in any room there will be no more than three to four students (speak to your neighbour). After five minutes, sometimes less sometimes more (depending on the question), I click the students back and then simply cold call on any room by number: What did you in room 9 think? And so goes the class. The effect is very similar to the in-person experience, with the added advantage that throughout the class students are having real conversations with their colleagues, diminishing somewhat the Zoom alienation. And yes, I do this, too, in one of my classes that right now has 117 students.
Finally, I request my students to have videos on. Concerns for privacy can be dealt with by another single click activating the artificial background. I have had no pushback and it definitely diminishes one of the most alienating features of zoom — talking to black screens.
For your consideration.