How do we find ways to increase access to and success in law, a subject often regarded as closed to those from more non-traditional backgrounds, while at the same time maintaining pedagogical and institutional standards?
Academics agree: there has been an extraordinary shift in the nature of the undergraduate student body over the last 15 years and pedagogy in higher education has struggled to respond. Political and social initiatives aimed at widening participation in higher education have caused not only the number of applications to universities to rise, but also a broadening of the range of students. Perhaps surprisingly the recent introduction of substantial fees (currently £9000 pa) for studying at degree level in the UK does not seem to have had a very significant impact on student numbers.
Law schools, providing an in-demand subject which is considered prestigious by prospective and current students, their parents, and a wide variety of potential employers, are at the centre of these changes.
There is a tendency to blame the students for the consequences of change. The story goes that they are not as engaged, lack cultural capital, are risk-averse and are instrumental in their approach to education. At the same time, technology has worked some sort of possibly malevolent pedagogical magic, transforming expectations of the presentation and presence of teaching. The consequence is that the core law curriculum is ‘dumbed down’, remedial skills are compulsorily delivered and research-active staff increasingly distance themselves from teaching undergraduates – particularly core modules. Those who do teach are expected to be permanently accessible to students via email. Presentation becomes as important as substance; students, positioned as consumers, rate their lecturers. Lecturers respond by entertaining students, and provoking responses rather than thought. There have, of course, been alternative approaches. York Law School, with the benefit of a clean slate, has devised a problem-based curriculum. Other law schools use specially designed tests to filter out students who do not demonstrate the necessary aptitude for traditional pedagogy.
Like many law schools, KLS decided to respond to the challenges set by increased student numbers and diversity (in all forms) by revising its curriculum:
Kent’s radical overhaul of the LLB curriculum took as its starting point the dual notions that we should acknowledge the benefits rather than bemoan the fact that the majority of students are ‘not like us’ and that the engagement of research-active staff with the design and delivery of core teaching is a pre-requisite of pedagogical quality in higher education. Rather than confining the teaching of skills to one particular module, we have embedded them in the core curriculum, ensuring that they are repeatedly practised and assessed.
We want to prevent students understanding skills acquisition as separate or discrete ‘hoops’ to jump through and to enable them to recognise that skills (of all kinds) contribute to their own progress and development in a multiplicity of ways. Drawing on innovations in medical education, we conceptualised our project as a ‘spiral’ curriculum in skills. The delivery, re-delivery and embellishment of skills at strategic points throughout the degree plays a central role in the creation of a radical new curriculum which simultaneously embeds skills, engages students and research-active staff and maintains a critical ideology.
Where we think that students lack experience in a particular skill, such as critical thinking, we seek to demonstrate that skill to them. This process begins with induction. We have sought to minimize the information overload that characterizes most induction events. Instead we watch films and documentaries alongside the students and then engage them in critical, informed debate. This year, for instance, we watched and had an interactive panel discussion on the BBC Panorama documentary on the Hillsborough disaster and they read, and we discussed Hilary Mantel’s infamous essay on royal bodies published in the London Review of Books. We set up a twitter wall as a fun way of introducing case law and getting them started in obligations. What we actually do is probably not terribly important; what is important is that students engage and participate (which includes students in our 2nd and 3rd years and our postgraduate students who sit on panels with academics) and that we demonstrate the pleasures of informed critical thinking.
We also try to make our curriculum attractive to research active staff by creating space in the core curriculum for what we call ‘special studies’ – parts of the course in which the seminar leader introduces the students to their own research interests and sets an essay on that topic. So for instance in public law students have researched topics including climate change and gambling regulation, and in obligations they have looked in detail at (among other things) public body liabilities and at civil liabilities arising out of mistakes made during fertility treatment. This has been particularly successful, enjoyed by staff and students alike and has the added bonus of preparing students well for optional subjects and dissertations.
A blog is not the right place to describe exactly what we have chosen to do and you may well not be interested – each law school starts from a different location and has its own priorities. Moreover a curriculum is a fluid document which changes following experience and with each new generation of students. If you do want to know more, we are working on an article to be published some time soon which will provide a detailed account. What we want to stress however is the importance of student participation in the learning experiences we provide. Our experience and intuition tells us, however, that this is not what students want either: they are keen to involve themselves with something more intellectually demanding as long as we support them along the way. Perhaps the model to go for is citizenship – where students work alongside academics in the creation of their academic programme and take some responsibility for their own intellectual life. We are not advocating that students should decide what they are taught and how they are assessed. What we do think however is that they are in a great position to inform our decisions on these matters, to evaluate what works and what does not work, and to take some responsibility for organizing events that interest students and staff and stimulate debate about contemporary issues.
This is a challenging way forward, not least because many academics are cynical about the abilities of students to contribute in this way, or resist the time that such a project might take, and we also have to find ways of talking to students other than the high achievers who tend to dominate student societies etc. But nearly all law schools have energetic Law Societies, and Kent benefits from particularly engaged Critical Law Students Society. So there is something to work on… and it has to be worthwhile if it enables us to avoid the horrible limitations of a consumer orientated legal education.