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Learning in Law Annual Conference 2008: (Dis)integration...designs on the law curriculum

Papers on integration at Learning in Law Annual Conference 2008:

  • Towards true integration: can we improve the English law degree? – Kevin Kerrigan and Philip Plowden (Northumbria University) read report below
  • “The machine is us”: wiki-based collaborative research and writing in legal education – Paul Maharg (Glasgow Graduate School of Law) read report below
  • “It’s Land Law, Captain, but not as we know it”: using drama to enhance large group learning – Mark Davys & Jenny Smith (Keele University) read full paper
  • Trial by media: teaching ‘contempt of court’ to non-lawyers – Ursula Smartt (Thames Valley University) read report below
  • There is nothing so practical as a good theory: the necessary role of legal theory in curriculum design – Graham Ferris (Nottingham Trent University) read report below
  • Spirituality and learning: an empirical study in legal education – Scott Taylor (University of St Thomas, USA) read report below , read full paper
  • Quality in the classroom – quality assurance in teaching: a UK/Hong Kong experience – Joan Whieldon and Loraine Houlton (University of Wolverhampton) read report below
  • Enter the dragon! Local cultures and global influences in e-learning in Taiwan – Abdul Paliwala (University of Warwick) and Amy Huey-Ling Shee (National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan) – read report below
  • Using interactive lectures to teach skills and knowledge and save staff time – James Wakefield (Nottingham Trent University) read report below
  • Integrating skills into the undergraduate law curriculum – Amy Croft, Emily Marshall and Mark Saunders (Kingston University) read report below

Towards true integration: can we improve the English law degree?

Most law schools give only casual attention to teaching students how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice. Unlike other professional education, most notably medical school, legal education typically pays relatively little attention to direct training in professional practice. The result is to prolong and reinforce the habits of thinking like a student rather than an apprentice practitioner, conveying the impression that lawyers are more like competitive scholars than attorneys engaged with the problems of clients.

Educating lawyers: preparation for the profession of law
(Carnegie Foundation, 2007)

At the time of the [1971 Report of the Committee on Legal Education], there were three main variants of the professional law school model … most prestigious, is an institution which purports to be the practising profession’s House of Intellect, providing not only basic education and training, but also specialist training, continuing education, basic and applied research and high level consultancy and information service. The nearest analogy is the medical school attached to a teaching hospital which, inter alia, gives a high priority to clinical experience with live patients as part of an integrated process of professional formation and development. In no western country has this model been realised in law.

Blackstone’s tower: the English law school (Twining, 1994:52)

Kevin and Philip considered recent American accounts of the shortcomings of US legal education (the Carnegie Foundation report and Stuckey’s work on Best practices for legal education ) together with their recommnendations, asking whether English legal education is rising to the challenge.

Given the continuing tension between the liberal arts vision of legal education and the drivers for more vocational approaches they questioned the prevailing English tri-partite thinking, suggesting that the time has come for a truly integrated approach to legal education and training, drawing together not merely the academic and vocational stages but also the elements of work-based education which have traditionally taken place outside the purview of law schools. Such an approach would be compatible with the needs for academic rigour while enabling a focus on effective and reflective practice to be at the heart of the new curriculum. In this way Twining’s ‘House of Intellect’ could finally be realised in English law schools.

The machine is us: wiki-based collaborative research and writing in legal education

Paul’s recent publication Transforming legal education: learning and teaching the law in the early 21st century (2007, Ashgate) is a critical account of how we learn and teach the law. Based on a transactional approach to education that derives from John Dewey and others, Paul argues for radical change not only to the production and use of theory, but to the way that law is learned and taught. The book explores new educational approaches to curriculum design and undergraduate education, and to professional education, and provides a range of international and historical case studies of legal educational practice. The book is based around four themes:

  • greater engagement in new technologies
  • a commitment to experiential learning
  • a central place for ethical education
  • collaboration between disciplines, between institutions, and between jurisdictions

These four themes are being taken forward into another publication, the Transforming Initiative. Based on a public wiki, this publication will be an entirely open and collaborative edited collection of essays, case studies and other pieces on the four themes, and based upon the concept of transforming teaching and learning the law – you are invited to join the publication as a collaborative author.

Trial by media: teaching ‘contempt of court’ to non-lawyers

Ursula’s presentation demonstrated how contempt of court is taught to non-law students (journalists and new media students), and was delivered as if to an audience of students, enabling participants to experience the approach adopted.

Since her students come primarily from a media background, Ursula seeks to spark their interest by using ‘red top’ reports of notorious and high profile cases as background material for the discussion of the legal issues that arise when journalists breach contempt laws. As well as focusing on the substantive legal issues, she also aims to stimulate debate about appropriate and ethical behaviour for journalists.

Participants were encouraged to engage in a debate following Ursula’s presentation on the Contempt of Court Act 1981 and related common law examples, with questions asked such as:

  • Why does the media frequently disobey contempt laws?
  • Why does the Attorney General not always act when crime reporting has taken place during sub judice ‘active’ court actions?
  • Does the Contempt of Court Act 1981 contravene human rights legislation?
  • Should the Contempt of Court Act 1981 be abolished?

In discussion, participants were interested in how Ursula balances the need to appeal to non-law students at a level which is relevant to them without making the explanation or analysis of the legal issues too simplistic or ‘sensational’.

The necessary role of legal theory in curriculum design

Graham argued that curriculum design is and should be informed by legal theory (including jurisprudence, legal method and legal methodologies), bridging the gap between scholarship concerned with research and scholarship concerned with pedagogy, and forming a link between research and teaching.

Curriculum design happens in a manner that is more or less chaotic in nature. Theoretical inputs from two sources are necessary to inform a more integrated process – learning theory and legal theory. Legal theory exposes the problems of law and proposes methodologies to address these problems – from these features educational purposes can be formulated.

Curriculum design has two aspects – content (the ‘what’ aspect) and method (the ‘how’ aspect). Content poses several problems to the designer:

  1. What to teach – essentially a selection problem (given the prior existence of academic law), controlled in part by (2).
  2. Distinguishing between general and particular content (content of general interest and content primarily of interest because it is).
  3. The order of teaching – controlled in part by (4).
  4. Determining the relationships between different content (for example is some content logically prior, is some necessary for explanatory purposes alone, is some ‘antagonist’ to other content).

Method poses its own characteristic problems:

  1. How to teach.
  2. Where to teach.
  3. Assumptions about learners.
  4. Assessment.

Content problems are amenable to solution by means of purposeful design with its source in legal theory. Purpose within education involves changes in students – a tutor desires students to apprehend a recurrent relationship, to gain a capacity to ‘see’ legal or social facts in a new way. S/he desires students to be able to re-organise their model of legal or social facts around different principles, to develop the ability to synthesise material consciously (and therefore in various ways), or desires students to understand the utility of law as a problem solving device – to develop the capacity to apprehend law as a resource, and the ability to create new syntheses by applying the resource to new problems. Completion of the task is of little interest per se – the capacities and abilities developed, and deployed, in performing the task are the desired end.

Graham gave a further version of this paper, Of carts and horses: the relationship between legal theory and educational theory in the design of modules and programmes in law, at the Society of Legal Scholars’ 2008 conference.

Spirituality and learning: an empirical study in legal education

Does a student’s spirituality enhance learning in higher education? The few published studies paint no clear picture. In this session Scott explored his perceptions of the influence of student spirituality on academic performance arising from his research using different measures of spirituality, such as the frequency of attendance at worship and the importance of faith in God (or a higher Being) in identity.

Scott has 100 completed surveys out of a population of about 300 second and third year law students studying law at St Thomas. The response rate from the sample was 99%. From the responses Scott has developed a ‘spirituality index’ for each student with a score of 1 to 5. (The index does not include broad norms such as equality, social justice, or human rights.) He then looked at the correlation between this index and four other statistical indicators of potential and actual academic success:

  1. LSAT (US law school admission test) score.
  2. Undergraduate grade point average.
  3. Projected first year grade point average in law school (determined by combining and weighting the first two variables based on previous correlations).
  4. The actual first year grade point average.

St Thomas relies heavily on the projected first year average to gauge likely academic success, and data from previous years indicates a very robust correlation between this indicator and actual academic performance. Scott was interested in seeing if the spirituality factor has a positive, negative or insignificant correlation with first year grades – a negative correlation would cause substantial concern, suggesting that curriculum and instruction are inconsistent with the university’s explicit mission of integrating faith into the curriculum. The jury still seems to be out, calling for further study, but giving valuable insights into the role of an extra-academic index in admission decisions and in enhance learning once students start their higher education.

Scott’s full paper, Spirituality and academic performance at a Catholic law school: an empirical study, appeared in the California Western Law Review (2008).

Quality in the classroom – quality assurance in teaching: a UK/Hong Kong experience

Joan and Loraine presented a critical and evaluative reflection on the delivery of an LLM in international corporate and finance law to international students in Hong Kong and on campus in the UK.

The course is offered as a one year full time course or a two year part time course in the UK and as a two year part time course in Hong Kong, with the number of students enrolled on the programme limited to 30. The course is made up of six core subjects and two electives, with delivery involving both traditional and block teaching.

A variety of teaching and learning methods are employed, with the underpinning principle that the focus is on interaction and exploration rather than didactic teaching methods, ie group discussion, student presentations, group work and case analysis rather than heavy tutor input. This is considered appropriate to postgraduate provision where the tutor role is facilitative rather than directive, and is necessary to develop true learner independence. The intention is that the students are engaged from day one, supported by a group/team ethos and moving gradually towards more subject specific areas of study.

Individual module analysis based on both qualitative and quantitative results illustrate that student performance in Hong Kong and on block delivery modules in the UK indicates overall better performances than using traditional methods.

Enter the dragon! Local cultures and global influences in e-learning in Taiwan

Abdul and Amy explored the development of an e-learning infrastructure in Taiwan. Taiwan has rapidly become one of the most advanced participants in the global information society, with government policy focusing on e-learning development. This has led to rapid advances and innovations in e-learning, with students adapting quickly to the Internet culture.

However, the story in law has been rather different, with slow take-up and uneven development across institutions. Collaborative initiatives are now being developed with institutions in the UK and US, leading to a developing infrastructure of e-classrooms and wireless u-learning environments, teaching platforms, course webs, webcasts and blogs. Courseware is being produced and innovative teaching ideas, including role play and multi-disciplinary approaches to law, are being introduced, raising inevitable questions about the relationship between new technologies and the curriculum.

Abdul and Amy have been involved in promoting awareness of global e-learning developments in Taiwan through a variety of means, including a visit by Taiwan law professors to the UK, e-learning seminars in Taiwan law schools and an international conference on e-learning in November 2007. They explored the potential and the problems raised by such global catalisation, highlighting the cultural implications of global influences and the nature of cross-cultural pedagogical dialogue.

Using interactive lectures to teach skills and knowledge and save staff time

In James’ view there is not always a dichotomy between learning skills and knowledge in the lecture room. The Bar Vocational Course exists to train a person to do a ‘job’. That person needs to acquire both knowledge and skills, and we serve that person best when we devise methods that employ skills to teach knowledge and that employ knowledge to teach skills. We also serve that person best when we help them critically evaluate their own work.

James presented a video of the lecture he uses to give detailed formative feedback to students on the Bar Vocational Course on a drafting exercise they completed before the session. Students were required to attend, having drafted as preparation a statement of case in a civil dispute. The lecture consisted of a discussion on how the statement might properly have been drafted. During the lecture students annotated their drafts, which they handed in at the end of the lecture for marking. Later, students met individually with tutors to discuss the drafting process.

Six staff and 12 students were asked to give feedback on this experiment. The consensus was that it increased student participation and understanding and decreased the burden on staff, compared with similar exercises where students simply completed the work and handed it directly to the tutor for marking.

Participants were invited to share ideas as to how to increase the amount of skills teaching without increasing the burden on staff. Several participants gave accounts of their work encouraging interactive lectures, but it was agreed that James’ method was the most innovative, in that it combined both content and skills teaching and encouraged students to take more responsibility for their learning.

The presentation demonstrated that learning skills and knowledge dissemination can accompany one another, and that it is possible to adopt an interactive approach even with large numbers of students. James acknowledged that the several hours he spent before the start of term learning students names from their photographs was a priceless investment, and made encouraging interactivity that much more straightforward. Overall, however, this method of giving feedback was economical in staff time as well as encouraging active student learning.

Integrating skills into the undergraduate curriculum

Traditionally, skills do not form the basis of modules on undergraduate law programmes. This paper gave ideas of ways that skills can be embedded into the undergraduate curriculum, based on a number of modules that have run at Kingston for several years.

A number of criticisms are frequently levelled at skills modules, such as the low level of substantive law included and the amount of resource in terms of staff time and actual cost, however there are several reasons why training in legal skills at undergraduate level is beneficial to students:

  1. Learning substantive law and procedure in the context of a legal skill – such as with the purpose of advising a client or formulating an argument for presentation in an open forum – provides most students with a better understanding of the subject.
  2. Students who have participated in skills modules throughout their degree are better prepared for their vocational course and therefore tend to do better.
  3. As a consequence they are better prepared for practice.
  4. The skills taught are transferable for most careers, and tend to give students confidence.
  5. A number of the requirements laid down in the Law Society and Bar Council’s Joint statement (PDF file) and the Quality Assurance Agency’s Benchmark statement for law are best demonstrated by the use of skills assessments.
  6. Reviewing programmes in line with the benchmark statement can be difficult, however by integrating skills into the programme these can be better aligned.

The skills highlighted in the session consisted primarily of practical professional skills, such as mooting, team working, client interviewing and negotiation, with a wide range of legal content delivered in an imaginative way. The presenters emphasised the positive impact on student achievement, self confidence and research skills, stressing that their contextual approach enhanced not just legal practices but also transferable skills, enhancing student employability more generally.

In discussion some participants expressed reservations about the approach, in that it was anticipating the professional training courses. To counter this Amy, Emily and Mark argued that skills should not be the exclusive preserve of those courses, and pointed out how practical assessment was a central feature of the Quality Assurance Agency’s benchmark standards. Some concern was also expressed about the amount of staff time it would take to carry out such a skills programme effectively, however the presenters countered that in comparison with marking written work the necessary time was not excessive.

Last Modified: 9 July 2010