When I first started teaching, I thought that
the Socratic Method was the best form of
pedagogy. Having seen the advantages of that
model when I was a student, I believed in it.
However, over the years, I have come to believe
that not all students are like me (thank God for
small mercies). For some students, the Socratic
Method works and for others a reliance on that
method alone confuses them.
Eventually, I came to ask myself: should I make
the students learn to appreciate the Socratic
Method or should I tailor my pedagogy to fit
my students? In essence, should I listen to those
who should listen to me?
As I often tell my students, a lawyer usually
should answer, “It depends.” A good lawyer
then proceeds to lay out the ‘for’ and ‘against’
arguments. So please bear with me as I try to do
so. I hope some comfort may be drawn from the
fact that unlike most lawyers, I am not charging
a fee for this.
Customer Driven, Student Centred
Since Quality Function Deployment (QFD) was
originally developed by Akao (1994), Customer
Driven Product Design (CDPD) has been the
driving force behind many of the most successful
products today from Thinkpad laptops to Toyota
cars. CDPD asks the simple question: Who are
our customers and what do they need?
Such an approach has, however, yet to have a
significant impact on educational products.
Some reasons could be that is that it is a little
more difficult to define who are the ‘customers’
of an educational institute and at a more
philosophical level, whether experts who ‘know
better’ should listen to ‘customers’.
I would like to suggest that we have at least
crossed the Rubicon for both objections. If we
believe in student feedback, we have already
admitted that their opinions count and that
we should incorporate where possible, their
suggestions (preferably the constructive kind).
Why is it that we often forget to emphasise a
student driven approach to pedagogical design?
We often lament about how our students
fail to fully appreciate a particular teaching
methodology such as the Socratic Method.
Instead, should we not first be asking ourselves
who are our students and second, where should
they be after our courses?
Once those questions are answered, should we
not then be asking ourselves how do we get them
from where they are to where they should be?
The Nature of a University
Why it so important that we get the design of our
teaching product right?
During one tedious examination invigilation, a
former colleague, a University of Buckingham
alumnus,1 was flipping through his alumni
magazine. After the exam, for want of reading
materials, I too flipped through its pages. I
was particularly struck by what their Vice-
Chancellor, Terence Kealey, said about their
top placing in the 2006 UK National Student
What are universities for? The first
European university was the University
of Bologna, founded around 1100, and
for their first 700 years the European
universities recognized that their prime
responsibility was to teach. But in 1810,
under the influence of Wilhelm von
Humboldt, the Prussian state created
the University of Berlin as a research
Humboldt’s hope was that a state-funded
research university would help change
Prussia’s culture. Prussia was daunted by
Britain’s lead in the Industrial Revolution
(a lead driven by its private industrial
research) and Humboldt suggested that a
state-funded research university would
help change Prussia’s culture from a
peasant and military one into a research
and commercial one.
So it did, but it also changed the nature of
the university. […]
But teaching is more important. Research
can take place almost anywhere, and some
of the best research institutions are indeed
not universities—witness, ironically, the
Max Planck institutes in Germany itself.
Yet if a university fails to teach properly,
then the student’s experience is damaged
irreversibly. Few students get a second
chance at an undergraduate career.3
However, many of us are often suspicious of
taking student feedback too seriously because
of the concern that students do not know how to
distinguish ‘good’ teaching from ‘nice’ teaching
(i.e. teaching that makes students better as
opposed to teaching that merely entertains or
makes students feel good).
Now, this is a valid concern. Nonetheless, if we
believe we can impart knowledge and cultivate
critical thinking in our specific fields, should we
not also believe that we can teach our students
to think critically about teaching?
Learning About the Students and Teaching
At the beginning of all my courses, I spend some
time finding out about my students, going over
my teaching methods, explaining the method
to my apparent madness (where possible) and
telling students where I hope they will be at the
end of the course.
All students come with different needs. After
some interaction, it becomes apparent which
students are able to link up ideas and information
by themselves and which ones need a little
guidance with the connections. I try to tailor
my methods to fit my students by mixing an
overview mini-lecture on a topic with a Socratic
discourse on that topic and then getting them to
apply their knowledge by arguing hypothetical
cases while acting for one side of the case.
Now, the Socratic Method is great for cultivating
critical thinking and all students should be
subjected to its rigour (to a certain degree).
However, relying on it alone to impart a
substantive framework for thought may confuse
students who are less used to solving jigsaw
puzzles by themselves. I also try to tailor my
explanation of difficult but important concepts
by using visual, oral and even kinesthetic
delivery methods as each student has different
ways of grasping and conceptualising complex
A mix of methods is necessary. As each class
has different students, the time spent using the
different methods varies according to students’
needs. In doing so, I hope to avoid leaving any
But, that begs the question of where should they
Key Performance Indicators
In all my courses, I set key performance
indicators (KPIs) (my apologies for using
overused management terms) for students and
myself, and tell them how I expect that we can
reach these KPIs together.
In law, it is a little easier to set KPIs for
students because there is a very easy picture on
which they can focus. In a professional school,
regardless of whether they want to be practicing
lawyers, students should have a fundamental
degree of legal competency because that is what
we are certifying them as having (amongst other
I discuss this premise with my students. Since
they all seem to accept it, I tell them, as my
former Company Law tutor4 told me many years
ago,5 that grades for answers to hypothetical
questions are awarded as follows:
• A: If it can be sent to a hypothetical client
and money charged for it.
• B: If there needs to be some amendments
made but the main points are covered.
• C: If there were some points missed.
• D: If some major points were missed but
• F: If the answer to the hypothetical problem
displayed a serious lack of knowledge that
made the student a potential menace to
society who should not be unleashed on the
This works relatively well when I use an
alternative benchmark of journal publication
in my research based courses and I suspect it
might work for most other standards. Students
seem to appreciate this standard setting because
it gives them something to aim for.
How about KPIs for myself? Every year, for all
my courses I tell my students that the following
are my goals:
• Legal competency: To prepare them to
be competent professionals with the legal
knowledge and skills who will render services
of a high standard to their clients;
• Mental development: To facilitate the
development of their learning, research and
communication skills; and
• Ethical awareness: To be aware of the
people that may be affected by their decisions
and advice and to empathise with their
I have tried to learn about my students, adapt
my teaching methods according to their needs
and teach my students about my methodology.
In short, I have tried to design my course for
students in any particular year while educating
them about their needs and the process. I have
been pleasantly surprised at how well they seem
to have learnt.
According to a student’s feedback, “The thing
about [Michael] is that he’s a very caring and
considerate teacher who knows how to be gentle
with blur students like me and at the same time
be able to push those who are capable.” I am
grateful that the student saw a method to my
madness. I am also grateful that enough of my
students appreciated the tailoring of my teaching
for them to nominate me for the award.
Of course, it could just be that I knew how to
tailor my dossier.
Akao, Y. (1994). “Development History of Quality Function
Deployment”. The Customer Driven Approach to Quality
Planning and Deployment. Minato, Tokyo, Japan: Asian
1. It is also interesting to note that this Buckingham product
recently became one of the youngest full professors in the
history of the University of Hong Kong.
2. The University of Buckingham was placed top of the
National Student Survey in 2006 and 2007. The students were
asked questions in the categories of Teaching, Assessment
and Feedback, Academic Support, Organisation and
Management, Learning Resources, Personal Development
and Overall Satisfaction. Oxford was second place in 2007.
3. The Independent, Autumn-Winter 2006, p. 2. https://extranet.
accessed 24 September 2008). It should be noted that
despite this emphasis on teaching, Buckingham’s flagship
Law School still managed a credible 20th out of 90 UK Law
Schools in the Guardian league table over more established
names like Nottingham, Leicester and Leeds.
4. This tutor has since gone on to serve Singapore in a variety
of ways and I believe his success may in some part be due to
his very clear thinking about KPIs.
5. It should be noted that much of my teaching skills and
beliefs are influenced by the positive examples of teaching
I received from my former teachers including my parents
(who are both erstwhile teachers). As it is often added in the
acknowledgement footnote of academic articles, any errors
remain entirely mine.