Critical thinking in legal education: What? Why? How? By Lucas Lixinski

by Lucas Lixinski

An article in today’s The Conversation asks whether universities really do a good job (or any job at all) of teaching critical thinking. While acknowledging that defining critical thinking is incredibly difficult, and that most definitions out there are vague at best, the article then moves to discussing whether universities actually teach critical thinking in the way they promise they do. In what seems like a job market that increasingly pays a premium for applicants who can demonstrate having learned critical thinking skills, there is a clear financial incentive (beyond the obvious intellectual one) to be more self-aware of what critical thinking is in our discipline, and how we actually go about teaching it.

 

What is critical thinking in law?

I will not by any means attempt to give an all-encompassing definition of critical thinking more broadly, nor critical thinking in the law. Instead, let me just say where I come from, and try and make sense of the landscape from there. The intention here is to start conversations and provoke reactions, rather than lay down the law (pardon the pun) on the matter.

 

In my opinion, critical thinking has to do with challenging assumed wisdom, and showing students how to do that themselves. In the law, as far as I can see, there are two ways in which I can do that. The first one is to focus on the contingencies of the law, whether they are economic, historical, or political. Things like the old adage that “the law is made largely by, and for the benefit of, white, male[, heterosexual, able-bodied] property owners” tends to be a great starting point to unravel those contingencies. As is the broader historical context of critical moments in the formation of the legal system (like the influence of Protestant ethics in the shaping of the Common Law and its approaches to labor and property, which is different from the way the mostly Catholic Civil Law jurisdictions behaved in Europe at around the same time).

 

Secondly, another way of critically thinking about the law, in my view, is to look into the background. More specifically, when we think about, say, a contract for the purchase of milk, the foreground body of rules operating is contract law. However, in the background there are a number of other bodies of law that influence what is possible for a contract (even though on paper contract law is still the quintessential guardian of private liberty), such as food security rules, (international) trade law if milk is considered to be a strategic product the production of which is incentivized, the corresponding tax arrangements, etc. Admittedly, it makes teaching a simple case daunting, but I always tell my students that I don’t need to have all the answers to those all the time, nor do they. But they need to be mindful of those knock-on effects of the simplest legal rule (sort of a “butterfly effect”, but in the law, and hopefully not creating any hurricanes anywhere).

 

How can we “teach” it?

If you haven’t caught on to it yet, let me out myself here. The way I think about critical thinking, and consequently teach it, is influenced by the way I think and write about the law more generally. Which is to say, I have a hard time dissociating critical thinking as an abstract and transferrable skill from critical legal studies, which is a specific way of theorizing and understanding the law. In other words, the way I conceptualize and “do” critical thinking is deeply influenced by my own bias as a critical scholar (well, much of the time anyway), which is framed by my politics, rather than my raw analytical ability. Assuming this neutrality is desirable (and the article on The Conversation referred to above suggests as much), how do I counter my own biases?

 

Maybe the assumption is that teaching a lefty orthodoxy induces critical thinking, in that it challenges status quo and conventional wisdom students come to the table with. So, maybe the way to teach critical thinking is to constantly challenge student’s assumptions. Except that those assumptions vary radically within a cohort, and change a lot throughout the degree. Which is to say, it may be safe to assume that a first-year undergraduate class at an elite university is made up of students whom you can assume espouse certain center- to right-leaning assumptions about the world, inherited from their parents and their upbringing. But, after spending a year being challenged on those assumptions, it may be that an upper level class needs to be re-presented with the Liberal version of the world. That is, of course, if critical thinking is to be conveyed through “thick descriptions” of reality as a means to understand and apply the law.

 

Which is to say, maybe the way to teach critical thinking is to make the teaching less about what I think, and more about playing devil’s advocate all the time to what students think. And that is a fair enough proposition in a student-centric model of education, but, if teaching is also meant to be (at least to some extent) research-driven (not to mention students’ insistence on “answers”), isn’t it my job to convey what I think after all? I constantly try to strike a balance between what I think and other opinions out there, and present them all, but I’m not sure I’m always successful.

 

This discussion brings to mind an old and still current debate about the purpose of legal education. Is legal education about teaching substantive knowledge of the law, or just skills (“thinking like a lawyer”)? I tend to think the latter, but, in considering the legal profession is subject to an increasingly strict regulatory environment, content is also incredibly important. It is also easier to measure and assess. Problem questions have a way of assessing critical thinking, but often enough (as people marking exams everywhere may attest to), answers to problem questions can too easily devolve into knowledge-spewing for significant segments of the student population.

 

So, what to do?

I honestly don’t know, and invite other people’s views on the matter. As far as I can see, I will keep on trying to challenge students at every turn (and have they challenge me), but being mindful that my opinion counts, while certainly not the only one that does.

 

In one of my classes (an Introduction to the Legal System-type class, called “Introducing Law and Justice”), I have the privilege of talking to students in one of their early contacts with the legal discipline. And in doing that I present students with a list of questions that they should be asking of materials they read (cases, statutes, scholarly texts) as a means to stimulate critical thinking:

–        Why is the law this way?

–        Who stands to gain?

–        Who loses?

–        What does the law as is miss? What are its blind spots?

–        What do other people do faced with similar legal problems, and why? Can we learn lessons there?

–        When was this case decided? What was the broader context around this case?

–        What was the court / law-maker trying to say between the lines?

–        Who is the court / law-maker (white, male, property owner)?

–        What is this legal statement / assertion / rule a reaction to?

–        How does the private affect the public (and vice-versa)?

 

That strikes me as a fairly useful checklist to spark critical thinking, on the models above. But are there other ways of doing that in law teaching? Let me hear your thoughts!

 

 

New Wellbeing and Mental Health Guide for lawyers

Colin James

A new Guide on wellbeing and mental health for lawyers has just been released by lawyers and researchers associated with the Wellness Network for Law. It was produced as a collaboration between the NSW Law Society, NSW Young Lawyers and four staff at ANU Legal Workshop.  The chapters were primarily written by Stephen Tang, Margie Rowe, Tony Foley, Vivien Holmes and Colin James.  There are also contributions from Ian Hickie and profiles from other familiar Wellness Network names, including Michelle Sharpe and Mary Digiglio.

 

The Guide is free and can be viewed online, downloaded as a PDF, and be ordered as hard copies:

 

http://lawsociety.com.au/ForSolictors/professionalsupport/supportingyou/BeingWellintheLaw/index.htm

 

The authors provide a more optimistic and comprehensive approach to wellbeing and mental health beyond identifying high levels of distress.  It has a chapter specifically for new lawyers on ‘starting right’ but the rest of the Guide is useful for all lawyers, and also for law students. It addresses wellbeing, mental health, thriving, values/ethics and their relationship with wellbeing and the differing types of stress (there is good stress!) and how to deal with it.

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.

Student engagement in university decision-making and governance- towards a more inclusive student voice

An OLT Strategic Priority Commissioned Project led by Sally Varnham UTS

by Sally Varnham and Bronwyn Olliffe

The “student voice” project was born out of experience with student engagement in university governance bodies and a recognition that in a changing tertiary education environment students expect a greater say in how they experience tertiary education.

As this study unfolded it became apparent that there is a wealth of experience with student engagement and partnership in other countries that we can draw on. At the same time, we have seen that some Australian tertiary education institutions are already implementing similar practices with their own student cohorts.

A challenge in embedding good student engagement practice here in Australia arises from the different types of institution providing tertiary education. A one size fits all approach will not suffice.  However, whatever the specific needs and constraints of particular institutions, we believe that there are lessons to be learnt from international experience and our collective Australian experiences in engaging students in decision-making.

To encourage engagement, a sincere culture of partnership must be developed through demonstration by universities and the sector of a commitment to and respect for student voice.   Communication is central: first, of the representative opportunities across the institution and secondly, how the views of student representatives are integral to decisions made. Essential components are:

  1. Effective, valued and supported student leadership in partnership with universities.
  2. A developmental approach to student representation from course/ subject level through to high level institutional bodies.
  3. Resources for training and support of student representatives.
  4. Formal and informal processes for the engagement of students at all levels for continual enhancement of courses, their university experience and their personal development.
  5. Capturing every student’s voice – engaging underrepresented student groups to ensure engagement of the whole student cohort.
  6. Appropriate financial and nonfinancial support and incentives for student representation.

The Project recommends a sector-wide collaboration for the sharing of knowledge and experience of the benefits and challenges of effective student engagement for the diverse Australian sector, ultimately working towards framing a set of principles. An Australian Learning and Teaching National Senior Teaching Fellowship has been awarded to the Project leader, Professor Sally Varnham (2016/2017) during which she will engage senior university leaders and government policy-makers, student representatives, professional and academic staff, university management, and government agencies in a sector wide discussion aiming at a shared understanding.

You can join us in continuing the Student Voice Conversation via our Facebook page: Student Voice in university decision-making and follow our activities via our web page: studentvoice.uts.edu.au.

 

Can teaching be measured? #2

Carolyn Penfold

Following on from Justine Rogers’ 30th May post: ‘Can Teaching Be Measured’ I’m adding links to some articles on the topic. I think these questions are becoming increasingly important as universities seek ‘metrics’ by which to measure their work forces. The articles linked to below suggest that bias is a concern in teaching evaluations, which for me raises the question of whether those using the metrics will need to ‘correct’ for likely (or even just potential) bias. Check these out and let me know what you think:

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/11/new-analysis-offers-more-evidence-against-student-evaluations-teaching

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2016/02/04/student-evaluations-of-teaching-gender-bias/

https://tcf.org/content/commentary/student-evaluations-skewed-women-minority-professors/

http://www.utstat.toronto.edu/reid/sta2201s/gender-teaching.pdf

 

Wellness and academic excellence: putting the two together

By Prue Vines

Abstract: We are constantly told to be concerned about our students’ anxiety and depression. This is real, but there is an alarming tendency in  our universities to fail to challenge our students because we are concerned about their stress levels. This has to be fought, because our students’ resilience will develop through being challenged, not through being wrapped in cotton wool. How we give feedback, what we teach and how can  all contribute to students becoming more independent learners, able to tolerate uncertainty and to get up again when life is hard, as it inevitably is sometimes.  It is possible to have high standards and push students without sacrificing wellness. I explore some of these issues.

Introduction

We are constantly told to be concerned about our students’ anxiety and depression.  I myself have been involved in research considering how law students’ anxiety and depression might arise and what a law school should do about it. [1]  I have not changed my mind; but I am  rather concerned about the development of ‘wellness’ as a norm in discussion about law schools[2] and the educational responses to concerns about lack of ‘wellness’ amongst students.

It is true that law students seem to have greater anxiety and depression than ever before[3]. This may partly be because of decreasing stigmatisation associated with greater reporting.  It may also be because students are experiencing greater anxiety and depression than before. This is my impression in teaching; in particular I notice a higher level of dependence in students than I did in my earlier years as an academic.

Responses to problems with wellness

I argue that it is properly within the scope of a law  school to develop their students as resilient lawyers and that the resilient lawyer has certain characteristics, some of which can  and should be fostered by the law school without turning itself into a counselling service or a ‘nanny-law school’. This latter point is very important, for two reasons. The first is because an academic whose major focus is on their own career (which probably means research) needs a very good reason to be interested in the mental health of their students, preferably one which will enhance their own lives and research. The second reason is that as academics and teachers within a university setting we have an intellectual role in developing our students,  even though not all of them will practise as lawyers. As teachers of law and lawyers we need to consider what it means to conceive of law as a profession. Professions  (originally medicine, law and the priesthood) were traditionally those which went beyond the mere making of profit.  That ‘going beyond’ sometimes meant stresses that needed a robust mind to deal with them. Professions also had ethics and disciplined themselves. These values of the profession are the link which I argue we can use to mediate what might otherwise seem to be merely ‘feelgood’ strategies, probably beneficial in themselves, but not properly within the province of the law school, so that they contribute to the professional education of the student. [4]

Responses to problems with wellness include therapeutic responses (counselling etc) but that is not the role of a law school.  Our responses need to be educational and so we should consider this partly in the light of the goals of our education.  Most Law schools have  Graduate Attributes and Teaching and Learning Objectives (TLOs) and most of these  include some aspects of professional and personal development. At UNSW Law they certainly do.[5]

I am going to suggest that our goals include the development of independent learners, willing to take responsibility for their own learning, and able to be resilient in the face of difficulties raised for them in their learning law or legal practice. It is worth noting that ethical difficulties appear to be some of the major ‘tipping points’ for students and legal practitioners to give up their study or occupation.[6]  So as part of the goal of developing a strong and autonomous personal and professional identity we have incorporated ethical issues in the law curriculum.[7]  My argument is that part of the legal education needed includes the development of an ethical ‘grammar’ for each person so that they have a sense of their own values which they can articulate clearly both to themselves and to others. In our first year program we try to do some of this, including doing exercises designed to show the student what her own values are.  This, it is hoped, will make it easier to discuss or argue against tasks which the person sees as unethical.[8]

The self esteem and  ‘scaffolding’ approach to education – aversion to failure

I have been teaching law for 26 years and I am concerned that our students are less independent in their learning than ever. I think that’s a problem we can deal with quite well. Here at UNSW we work on it quite hard – in the Peer Tutor Program the peer tutors are asked to keep asking students questions rather than giving them answers; we emphasise learning to tolerate uncertainty. In the classroom  we have learned to wait what can seem a long time for students to answer a question rather than rushing in to rescue them. In our assessments we try to ask questions that mean they will have to be thinking and coming to their own conclusions while they are doing the assessments; and maintaining exams means they simply cannot get someone else to do it for them.

That’s all well and good – the delicate process of supporting students enough for them to take risks and then gradually taking away the supports so that they can stand on their own is something I think I can do with my students. But there is sometimes an obstacle. That obstacle is requirements of our university learning and teaching programmes which are well-meaning but in my opinion actually reduce students’ independence. One of the problems is that these directions tend to be blunt instruments directed at the whole university because the teaching and learning unit is aware that somebody somewhere is completely ignoring their students or doing things badly. So we get instructions like ‘all students must be given clear and complete directions about the content of assessment’ [9] or expectations must be set out clearly with an example which virtually answers the question. Setting and making clear expectations of students is really important, but giving them so much information that they have virtually been given the answer is counter-productive.

One of the reasons this has been happening is because we are keen on alleviating student anxiety. Here again we have to be careful. Just as a good parent allows a child to bear a consequence in order that in the future they will be more able to manage things themselves, and similarly lets a child fail at something in order to teach them that failure is not the end of the world, a good teacher will allow a certain level of anxiety now because that is the best way to ensure that it is less likely that there will be anxiety in the future.

In our concern to keep students happy and comfortable we have sometimes forgotten that future-proofing requires some effort and sometimes a little bit of anxiety or frustration now.  We also seem to have forgotten that not all stress is bad.  Indeed it is quite clear that without stress, people become weak:’ Without pressure champagne would have no fizz’ as they say (Duchess of Duke Street). What we can assist with is helping people to learn that stress and failure are not the end of everything, that they must be tolerated and lived through.

So monitoring what we require of our students and reducing scaffolding structures over time is very important. This requires thought and effort to create a happy medium between total support which creates total dependence and the reduction of support over time to develop independence. The Peer tutor Program Objectives[10] are instructive I think:

Students need to develop themselves as independent learners through:

  • Tolerance of uncertainty
  • Collaboration and care
  • Confidence through participation

These aims of the Peer Tutor Program (which has been in place since 1996) remain a good way to think about the development of excellence in education. The need to develop independence is acquired through being in a situation which allows enough of a sense of safety (through collaboration and care between peer tutor and student) for the student to be able to tolerate the uncertainty inherent in law in an academic environment and to develop confidence through participation rather than only observation. This places the onus on the student to learn rather than teacher to teach.

Another issue I am somewhat concerned about is warnings about content. It seems to me that warning a student that content may be confronting is fine, but effectively creating a situation where a students’ sensibilities determine the content of the course they are doing by telling them they should not attend if something is upsetting is not reasonable in the context either of developing professionals who can do the job, nor in developing resilience.

Others may disagree with me about the level of support students need. Students differ from each other and have multiple needs, but ultimately they have to be responsible for their own learning and we do not help them if we pad them out with cotton wool. Meeting challenges is stressful but satisfying and offering challenge is one of the things we should be doing.

Praise and achievement

There is some interesting research on praise – which we might know as feedback – in the educational literature[11].  The last 20 years of the 20th century were dominated by the view that high self esteem would increase success in education and that therefore praise was vital in education.  There is now evidence that, while self-esteem is important in itself, it probably doesn’t influence achievement particularly.[12] (there is also some evidence that self-esteem is not developed well by being told ‘ you are special’ etc but much more effectively by looking at what has been actually done  and being specific– ‘You chopped the wood. That’s great, now we can have a fire’.[13]

What this literature seems to establish is that there is praise and praise – praise which is focused on the child’s attributes and achievement eg ‘You are so clever you got 75%’, ‘You are so intelligent’ etc may be counterproductive compared with praise which focuses on effort ‘ I can see you put a lot of effort into this’; ‘You have really worked hard and got these answers right’. For example, there is strong evidence to believe that students may either think about their intelligence as a fixed trait or as something they can develop through effort. The first group can become obsessed with how clever they are and avoid tasks they find difficult in favour of tasks they find easy on the basis that the easy tasks help them prove that they are intelligent and effort makes them feel stupid.  The second group are much more likely to want to learn and put effort into developing their intelligence. At least one study has shown that cheating was much more likely in students who had been praised for their attributes ‘You are so clever’ (40% of them)  compared with effort-praised students (10 %) and that they were also less likely to put in effort in later work compared with those whose effort was praised.[14] This is probably something useful for us to note, as our aim is to develop continuing effort.

This is one reason why in my class participation assessment I focus on engagement and effort rather than mastery of the material. This seems to me to be more likely to result in continuing effort. This research suggests that in our feedback to students we should be focusing on their effort and the process they have gone through in order to produce what they have.

Self knowledge, personal and professional identity and autonomy

Our study of law students compared with other students at university showed that they were far less likely to be doing law because they themselves chose to compared with students from other faculties.[15] We also found a number of other factors which suggested that law students disproportionately  lacked a sense of autonomy compared with other students. A sense of helplessness is one of the most common signifiers of depression and autonomy is therefore a significant issue for law students. (Social connectedness is another significant issue for depression but here I focus on autonomy).

We try in first year to begin to address some of these issues by working on the development of self knowledge, and personal and professional identity. In relation to professional identity we begin, as I said, to consider  the development of a personal ethical grammar.  We also try to develop a sense of internal rather than external motivation. In relation to this marks are a really big issue. Law students were far more likely than other students to think that marks were the only thing employers were interested in, and they were also very likely to identify themselves with their mark. How often have you heard a student say to you, ’But I’m  a distinction student!’?  Moving from identifying oneself with a mark which has been given to you by some external purpose  to thinking of a mark as something which might help one to develop one’s internal understanding of what one is learning, or seeing the mark as just one piece of evidence about the work rather than everything about it are things that we try to develop in our students. The internally motivated law student is far more likely to continue to learn, and to be able to evaluate for themselves how much they have achieved or not achieved than the student who is motivated purely by external matters. Indeed the move from external to internal motivation is probably assisted by praise focused on effort rather than on attributes.

Things one should know about oneself in order to assist in development of learning and excellence:

How I learn

What my values are

What gives me personal and professional satisfaction

That a failure of some kind often is a great learning experience and is not the end of the world.

This is most likely to develop the kind of autonomy that is robust and resilient.

 

Conclusion

 

What I have tried to talk about here is what are reasonable strategies for us as legal academics and teachers to use in developing and maintaining our students’ resilience. It is not our job to be counsellors but it is certainly our job to foster our students’ minds where we can and to challenge them in order to continue their development. We will have to exercise judgment about when a student is in the kind of trouble that needs a mental health professional, and we should certainly encourage students to ask for help from a mental health professional or a friend when they are feeling distressed or having trouble. But we should not dumb down our curriculum nor take bits out of it just in order to save students from stress which may very well be important for ‘tempering’ their steel for the future. Of course, it is a matter of judgment where this line is drawn, and the line may be drawn differently for some students, but our job, I would suggest, is to be focused on developing academic excellence in our students while they are in this environment where we can allow them to begin to grapple with the issues and problems that inevitably will face them later.

[1] M Tani and P Vines ‘Law Students Attitudes to Education: a pointer to depression in the legal academy and the profession?’ (2009) 19(1) Legal Education Review 3-39; Prue Vines and Patricia Morgan, ‘Contemplative Practice in the Law School: Breaking Barriers to Learning and Resilience’ in R.Field, J. Duffy and C. James Legal Education and Lawyer Well-being: Evidence from Australia and Beyond, (Ashgate, 2016.)

[2] Council of Australian Law Deans Guidelines on Promoting Law Student Well-being 2013; Tristan Jepson Foundation’s  Best Practice Guidelines

[3] Although US literature has accepted this for thirty years, in Australia we have only had good data on this subject since the Brain and Mind Institute Study was done in 2008: Norm Kelk et al Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards Depression in Australian Law Students and Lawyers, Brain and Mind Institute, 2009.

[4] Some of this material comes from Prue Vines ‘Working towards the Resilient Lawyer: Early Law School Strategies’ in Leon Wolff and Maria Nicolae  The First Year Law Experience: a New Beginning,  (Halstead Press, 2014).

[5] See ALTC /CALD Report on Learning and Teaching in the Discipline of Law, 2009.

[6] LS Krieger, ‘The Inseparability of Professionalism and Personal Satisfaction:Perspectives on Value, Integrity and Happiness’ (2005) 11 Clinical Law Review  425; Rachael Field, James Duffy and Anna Huggins, Lawyering and Positive Professional Identities (LexisNexis Butterworths, 2014).

[7] UNSW Law School Curriculum Review Working Party:  Curriculum Review: Designing an International, Experiential, Research-focused Curriculum for a C21 Law School, (UNSW Law, 2013) pp 46, 82-85.

[8] Anthony T Kronman, The Lost Lawyer: failing the ideals of the legal profession (Harvard University Press, 1995).

[9]‘ Make expectations, goals, learning outcomes and course requirements clear. If students are to take responsibility for their own learning, they need to know what is expected of them. Also articulate your expectations about assessment tasks and their criteria at this time.’ UNSW Guidelines on Learning p 50.

[10] Dominic Fitzsimmons, Simon Kozlina and Prue Vines, ‘Optimising the First Year Experience in Law: the Law Peer tutor Program at the University of New south Wales (2006) 16(1 &2) Legal Education Review 99.

[11] Carol S Dweck ‘Caution-Praise can be Dangerous’ (1999) Spring  American Educator 1-5;  M Stout, The Feel-good Curriculum: the dumbing down of America’s Kids in the name of Self Esteem (2007); Carol M Dweck  ‘The Perils and Promises of Praise  (2007) 65 (2) Educational Leadership  34-39

[12] N Humphrey ‘The Death of the Feel Good Factor’ (2004)  25(3) School Psychology International  347-360

[13] M Stout, The Feel-good Curriculum: the dumbing down of America’s Kids in the name of Self Esteem (2007

[14] Carol M Dweck ‘The Perils and Promises of Praise  (2007) 65 (2) Educational Leadership  34-39,  36.

[15] M Tani and P Vines ‘Law Students Attitudes to Education: a pointer to depression in the legal academy and the profession?’ (2009) 19(1) Legal Education Review 3-39

Innovation for the next generation of legal education: student-led video production

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How can legal education be enhanced through student-led video production? How effective is it for class learning? And what are benefits and challenges that this form of blended learning poses for environmental law and legal education more generally?

These questions were explored by Cameron Holley and Amelia Thorpe in a recent UNSW Law Learning & Teaching seminar where they presented the findings from their Learning and Teaching Innovation grant entitled: ‘Updating legal education with blended classrooms: lessons from student-led resource development’.

The premise:

  • Videos are one of most popular form of online media teaching (particularly in MOOCs) 
  • Facilitate thinking and problem solving

–creative challenge of using moving images and sound to communicate a topic

–filmmaking skills, but also research, collaborative working, problem solving, technology, and organisational skills

  • Inspire, engage and foster deep learning

–Videos as part of student-centred learning activities benefit motivation, opportunities for deeper learning, learner autonomy, communication skills,

  • Authentic learning opportunities

–method for students to construct concepts and learning about real life issues relevant to them

  • Assist with mastery learning

–providing learning resources for future cohorts

What did they do?

–students asked to identify a recent development in environmental law that is not already covered in the prescribed text book

–required to produce a short video, no longer than 10 minutes, that portrays the subject matter of a recent environmental law development and reflects thoughtfully on in its implications for achieving ecologically sustainable development

–low risk – 5% for trial (would be more in future)

–outcomes and process assessed

–small teams of 4-6 students

  • to assist: three iPads made available and guide sheets on a suggested timeline, working in small groups, and media production.
  • videos shown to the class as a set late in semester.

–roughly 40% of class already had experience with technology

The Results?

Cameron and Amelia showed examples of videos that demonstrated highly engaged, deep learning among the student groups, with a strikingly high level of production value!

The presentation drew on empirical data collected from student interviews and surveys, as well as teacher and peer reflections. It rounded off by critically examining the strengths and weaknesses of student produced videos as a tool for blended learning, before a lot of us in attendance decided we all want to try it out in our courses!

For those who wish to experiment with similar innovations, view the student data, or track the sources for the above,  their slides are available here: Holley_Thorpe_UNSWLaw_video.

Can Teaching be Measured?

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By Justine Rogers

Last week UNSW had its second ‘Great Debate’, introduced last year as a fun, accessible way for the UNSW community to explore a serious and stirring topic. (For a post on last year’s, click here)

Each team: professor-manager, non-prof academic, and student.

The topic: Of Course Teaching Can be Measured (it’s a 5.3!).

I was on the affirmative (which I knew going in would be tough).

Given it was a private event for staff and students, I’ve written this assuming some version of the Chatham House Rule applies.

The affirmative’s arguments were:

  1. Teaching can be measured, albeit imperfectly, and certainly better and more reliably than it is now.
  2. Teaching needs to be measured to enhance the quality, rewards and status of teaching.

The negative’s arguments were:

  1. Teaching cannot be measured, only learning experiences and learning outcomes can. 
  2. Teaching measures are flawed and unreliable.

The negative committed to the empirical questions, whereas I tried (unsuccessfully in the 4 or so mins we had) to engage both sides in the wider empirical and normative argument suggested in affirmative point 2: whether there is some positive correlation between measurement, and motivation, quality and status, and therefore whether a more robust measurement of teaching is worthwhile.

I wish we’d had the format and time to examine this: whether this is true, or whether, using research measures as example, such measures have too many biases, perverse incentives, and inefficient and/or demoralising effects to be of real value (even if it entails superficial value). 

I will share my main arguments here, some of which I am fairly convinced, many posed as part of my role on the affirmative side, and some raised in the spirit of fun and provocation. Above all, I think the topic raised several questions left that need to be contemplated, many of which I’ve posted below – so please share your thoughts!

Continue reading “Can Teaching be Measured?”

A not so subtle metaphor

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Imagine if a faculty of science in Australia focused its undergraduate/foundational teaching on the science of the local flora and fauna.  Students would learn about kangaroos and eucalyptus tress, about achidnas and banksias, about the funnel-web spider and the Murray cod.  Of course, they would also learn about palm trees and dingos, about the cane toad and about invasive weeds.  While there would occasionally be upper level electives on comparative anatomy or botany or on species not found locally, those courses would be few and far between, perhaps largely left for specialised postgraduate or later studies.

Further, imagine if the science faculties around the world followed the same model and also focused their undergraduate/foundational degree programs on their own local flora and fauna. Such a situation of university science education might arise around the world if the primary jobs for science graduates were in managing and developing the local flora and fauna, with only occasional work involving foreign or trans-regional species (despite an increasingly interconnected world of flora and fauna).  It might be perpetuated by the senior people in the field, who set the employment regulations, and who believe such an intense grounding in local science is necessary for the successful work of the scientist and the country.

Such an approach to science education around the world would mean that it would be difficult for science graduates to move to other countries for work in their field – as they may lack the local knowledge demanded of them by employers and by the regulators of their field.  Further (local) studies would be required to then secure employment in that foreign country. If the flora and fauna were too radically different it might even be the case that the newly arrived science graduate would have to start over again, enrolling in the local foundational science degree.

In such a situation we should expect there to be little science student international mobility, especially into the undergraduate/foundational level. After all, why go to the trouble and expense to study the flora and fauna of another country – especially for three to four years when that knowledge will be unlikely to help secure a job back home.  Though, if the home has similar flora and fauna it may be that the undergraduate/foundational degree would be acceptable, providing enough substantive knowledge to permit successful work back home. Thus, science studies in California may be suitable for Mexico, or studies in Vietnam would be applicable in Cambodia.  But a degree in such a localised science course in Australia would not be of much use in Norway.

Perhaps another approach to science teaching might be to push for an undergraduate/foundational degree in world/comparative flora and fauna, focusing on holistic concepts and transferable skills, perhaps with a few upper level electives or specialized post graduate courses in the local flora and fauna that would then provide the detailed knowledge to work locally (though the basic courses should be sufficient to provide the ability to assimilate and understand the science of the local flora and fauna).  Such an approach might reflect an understanding that science is best taught by starting at an holistic and conceptual level, and then moving to the specific if necessary.  Such an approach accepts and understands that science  is more similar than different across the world.  Imagine if that is how science faculties actually taught.

By Colin Picker

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