Figuring out what works in Legal Education – the gaps in research and why it’s not all gloom and doom

By Julian Laurens and Lucas Lixinski

An article published in today’s The Conversation suggests there is a sizeable problem in the higher education literature, in that it is not sufficiently comprehensive, too anecdotally-based, and because of that lacks replication / transplantation value, making it difficult for other educators to apply findings in their own contexts. That is a fair point, even if focusing only on legal education helps address some of the article’s concerns.

One of the things some of us are trying to do at UNSW Law attempts to rise to some of these challenges. By seeking to clearly situate our teaching practice within the literature of what we do know, we are developing a body of work that addresses some of those gaps, with the caveat that it is in the legal education context, and may not be easily applicable outside the Common Law (or even Australian!) context. Which leads us to question whether there is such a thing as generalizable formulae in education. To be sure, in assuming the jurisdiction-specific nature of education, we may be tying ourselves to the notion that legal education primarily teaches content, rather than transferrable skills. But even if we are talking about skills, they are still historically, politically and socially contingent, so transplantability of findings about “what works” can never really be complete. So, not only may be the objective of a generalized wisdom on higher education be a utopia, there is also reason to believe that we do have generally a pretty good idea of some things that do actually work, at least in law (though admittedly there are glaring gaps in the Legal Education literature).

Part of the issue is how one can measure things like ‘success’ – whether it is a narrow, easily quantifiable neo-liberal inspired marker (test scores come to mind), or something broader, encompassing notions of justice (such as student well-being). An example is the difference between the education system in Norway and how they approach student learning and the education system in say the United States with its completely discredited emphasis on continual standardised testing and so forth.

So, yes, we DO know that some things work better than others and we DO have an idea of how they are situated very clearly in the relevant psychological and educational literature. And there is no reason to assume that many things cannot be transferred into University teaching that were found in, say, a secondary school setting. We need to bear in mind the contingencies that define the legal field (and, for that matter, any field of knowledge), but we think there is more reason to hope than to despair. The problem may be that we have people with MBAs designing educational policy, instead of people with MEd’s.

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