Thoughts about education [Legal Education]

Yesterday Swansea Academy of Learning and Teaching (SALT) held its yearly conference. This time around myself and Dr. Ana Da Silva did a presentation on the work with Startup Law, a module I created while at Bangor University (and to which I am very grateful for allowing me to use data collected over the years there). Our presentation can be found in the presentations folder. We had great feedback and excellent questions from colleagues from various disciplines.

It was great to see so many presentations about education in general and by far my preferred one was Phil Newton's keynote where he debunked a series of myths about supposed "evidence based" educational theories. It seems that in education - as in procurement - there is a dearth of evidence based for some popular theories such as learning styles. Some stuff like micro-teaching or direct instruction (really?) works and there is evidence for it, but the jury is still out there for other theories and ideas such as discovery learning.

Furthermore, most of the gain is to be found in the low hanging fruit which allows mediocre lecturers to become average ones. Things like good slide decks (they are not your notes...), content structure, pacing & voice projection or peer observations. All these take a little bit of time and effort but pay back in spades.

What does this mean for legal education?

First, based on my own limited experience, Phil has a good point in so far as to the discovery learning vs direct instruction debate. I saw in Startup Law the effect of moving from a discovery learning approach whereby students were left to their own devices (based on my experience as a lawyer where meaningful/timely feedback was rare) to a more direct instruction where meaningful feedback was provided quickly and indicated clearly what had been done incorrectly. I still refrain from too much hand holding as one of the purposes of the module is precisely to expose students to the unsettling feeling of not knowing what is expected exactly from them and learning to deal with those insecurities.

Second, we are still not engaging enough with cutting edge pedagogical research. Now, this would not be a problem had there not been a drive over the years to reward good teaching (as it should be), pedagogical "training" (torture...) such as the PGCertHE, as well as moving staff to teaching and management contracts. The latter should be the ones pushing this agenda, but I am yet to see widespread engagement by those who have most to benefit to do so.* Maybe things are different in teaching intensive schools?

Third, I stand by my previous comments that legal education is not practical enough in the UK (or the continent for that matter). I hated how I was taught law 15 years ago and we are still stuck in the same paradigms. We should look at the US, which in turn look at what medical schools are doing to develop skills in future doctors. I may falling for an availability bias though, as the better half specialism is in medical education.

Finally, as a class we are very risk averse. Most of the teaching changes I have seen over the years are simply responses to student pressure lest those National Student Survey results come down tumbling. More lecturers should be taking risks, testing and validating new ideas. To be honest this implies a buy in from the organisation, particularly the key decision makers which need to provide appropriate air cover in case something goes wrong. When it comes down to innovation you need to practice what you preach and accept failure. If the institution is not ready to accept failure it will never foster innovation. I have been lucky so far that my Heads of School/College were former lawyers and with a keen interest in making legal education more appealing.

* I am on a teaching and research contract and swing both ways. I like to do research in my main core area(s) - procurement and startups - but also in pedagogy, colloquially known as scholarship, lest it be confused with research.

PS: When in doubt, ask Eric.