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Are we all going to the same place: pluralism and value driven legal education

At the Learning in Law Annual Conference 2010, Rebecca Huxley-Binns (Nottingham Law School) considered the different roles values should play in informing curriculum design if legal education is to successfully engage and realise the full potential of students.

Becky’s slides are embedded below, and you can also download a recording of the session at the foot of this page.

We have argued elsewhere that there is a need to develop a more self conscious approach to curriculum design (Ferris: The Law Teacher (2009) and WebJCLI 3 (2009)); these pieces were concerned with the possible role of educational theory and legal theory in curriculum design. In a linked discourse the Nottingham Law Journal has published pieces on the possible role of religion as a source for values within legal education (Taylor: Nottm LJ (2009); Kirk: Nottm LJ (2009)). A wider debate over the values that should inform legal education in the UK has been ongoing for many years, and was recently highlighted in the special edition of The Law Teacher (2009). One problem area that causes concern in all these related areas is the proper approach to the use of emotionally charged values in education.

This paper argued that the debate over values needs to be conducted in the light of discrimination between values that potentially play different roles in legal education. Thus, some values are intrinsic to our legal system – amongst these are those that inform professional ethics. Some values are orthogonal to law, neither opposed to nor integral to legal education. Some values are in opposition to legal or educational values, around which there is a general consensus in the discourse about UK higher education in general and legal education in particular. A pluralistic approach (Berlin) to ultimate reconciliation of value conflicts does not prevent such a classification. It is argued that both values that are integral and values that are orthogonal to legal education can and should be allowed to inform curriculum design.

Such an approach is valid if and only if two further arguments are accepted.

  1. Toleration is a consensus value of higher education that demands both acceptance of value discordance and the rectitude of persuasion. Thus, this first argument is that for many value disputes there is not an authoritative answer (note the contrary for some integral values) that is laid down in the curriculum, and that value difference is not a matter of mere pre-determined individual constitution but is a matter upon which it is right to enter into discourse aimed at value change.
  2. The emotionally charged values of people are amenable to influence through cognitive and reasoned discourse, that it is possible to use methodologies that will identify unacceptable arguments within value discourse (thus, although ultimate agreement is not to be hoped for rules of discourse and validity or invalidity of argument achievable). That emotions are not treated as essentially unrelated and unaffected to the cognitive realm, but as open to influence and change through rational discourse (Frankfurt; Bandes (1999).

The paper offered a proposed structure for debate over the role of values in legal education that tries to transcend the argumentative form of opposed ideals, arguing that values are essential to the creation of a complete curriculum, as they allow the development of personal commitment by students in the intrinsic subject matter of their study. Thus, the problem with values we face is not truly which values we should aspire towards, rather it is how we can integrate value relevance for students into the legal curriculum and how to develop a more satisfactory form for the internal discourse over values within the academy. These questions are common to the stages of legal education, although the answers may not be so.

Helen James (University of Winchester) reports:

Becky had won the Law Teacher of the Year award the previous evening so it was no surprise to find that she was an engaging and enthusiastic speaker.
Her presentation was based on the chapter she is writing in conjunction with Graeme Ferris, also of Nottingham Law School, for a forthcoming publication on the affective domain and its impact on student learning. Becky focused on the concept of value driven legal education and the role this plays and ought to play in developing students’ critical thinking.
It comes as no surprise that a ‘black letter’ approach to law teaching still dominates. Indeed, students appear to expect it. We all recognise the scenario where we explore concepts with our students, and examine different ways in which decisions might be reached and different values that may impact upon and influence decision making, but at the end of the lecture the students will nonetheless want to know what the right answer is! Becky argued that an ability to develop this and to encourage students and others to adopt a more pluralist approach is an essential feature of quality (legal) education.

About Becky
Rebecca Huxley-Binns is a senior lecturer in law at Nottingham Law School (NLS), with special interests in criminal law, evidence and legal education. She is co-chair and co-founder of the Legal Education Group at NLS.

Last Modified: 9 July 2010

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