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Creativity in the law curriculum

The ‘creativity in the law curriculum’ stream at Learning in Law Annual Conference 2007 included the following papers:

  • Class acts: script and performance in law school – Gary Watt (University of Warwick) read report below
  • Law and literature and the LLB: an apology for poetry in the undergraduate law curriculum – Robin Lister (University of Bradford) read report below
  • Peer assisted learning: what benefit to the student PAL leader? – Sue Warnock, Lucy Parkinson and Gareth Hoodless (Bournemouth University) read report below
  • Iuristi wiki: a collaborative resource on Russian lawyers – Jane Henderson and Steve Warburton (King’s College London) read report below
  • Returning to learning: a student centred approach to legal education on a part time programme – Glenn Robinson (BPP Law School) read report below
  • Improving student exam performance: a comparative approach – Peter Wendel (Pepperdine University, USA) read report below
  • ‘On trial’: teaching without talking: creativity in learning and teaching through the use of popular culture and law – Kirsten Hardie (Arts Institute at Bournemouth) read report below
  • Postgraduate to professional: creativity and opinion writing skills – Ros Carne (City Law School) read full paper
  • Breaking the system? Creativity in contemporary legal education – Scott Slorach (College of Law) read report below

Class acts: script and performance in law school

Gary made the case for a more humanities focused approach to law in law schools, developing ideas set down in his paper The soul of legal education. He demonstrated how script writing and performance can form a significant strand of a humanities focused law degree, referring to practical examples at Warwick, including:

  • full module dramatised dissertation
  • written assessment in the form of a script in a special module on images, origins and cultures of law and in the core trusts law module
  • student-led seminar on literary, dramatic and other artistic links to property law
  • mooting/mock trials
  • the university’s educational partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company

Law and literature and the LLB: an apology for poetry in the curriculum

The latest UK law schools survey suggested that only three or four offer law and literature as an option on their law degree. This number seems surprisingly low, given the proliferation of literature on the subject since the emergence of this approach to thinking about law in the US in the 1970s and the widespread availability of courses in US law schools, as well as the advocacy of law and literature studies on law degrees by a number of UK academics throughout the 1990s.

The reasons for law and literature’s minimal presence on the UK undergraduate law curriculum are unclear. The same law school survey showed a small decline in jurisprudence and the continuing dominance of substantive, ‘black letter’ law options, perhaps indicating a pragmatic, technical, legal practice emphasis – a narrow utilitarian conception of what a degree in general and a law degree in particular are for. Perhaps a majority of law teachers agree with Posner’s reductive argument (from which he has since effectively retreated) that law and literature does not have much to offer – specifically that literature has little to offer law. And, given the rarefied direction that law and literature scholarship has frequently taken, it is probably true that US law students, being graduates of other disciplines, are better prepared for a theory driven law and literature syllabus than their UK undergraduate counterparts.

The law and literature approach can develop law students’ appreciation of and skill with language, broaden their cultural awareness, provide a salutary antidote to the indoctrination into deference that is central to traditional legal education – and be jurisprudence made fun.

Peer assisted learning: what benefit to the student PAL leader?

Sue, assisted by two students, described a project into peer assisted learning (PAL) in operation at Bournemouth, drawing on experiential material gathered from a focus group with past PAL leaders.

Students agree to act as mentors to first years. The students have scheduled contact sessions and are expected to explain aspects of the process, such as rules for the presentation of coursework, and to provide other general advice and support, but also to enhance learning. This does not involve teaching in any sense, but rather facilitating the students to revisit areas and reinforce their own learning.

The scheme attracts sufficient mentors through payment, and also through a strong sense that it is a positive step, forming a key aspect of the mentor’s CV. All mentors are trained by a member of the university’s training and development unit, and monitoring is undertaken by a member of academic staff, who meets mentors regularly and addresses any concerns.

Iuristi wiki: a collaborative resource on Russian lawyers

Jane has been awarded support from King’s Teaching Committee to develop a blended learning environment for students studying Russian law. The environment will use WebCT Vista to deliver a range of course elements, with different blended learning techniques enabling both student-student and student-teacher interaction.

In autumn 2006 a pilot wiki was set up for a class assignment on Russian lawyers. Wikis are an online collaborative tool developed in the early 1990s that allow novice users to build collections of resources in a Web-based environment – the most well known wiki is probably Wikipedia.

The class consisted of 14 students taking a Soviet and post-Soviet legal systems module and two students taking a half module in Russian legal institutions, taught concurrently. It was felt that 16 was a good sized group for the pilot – large enough to allow detailed coverage of topics, but small enough to develop a positive supportive dynamic to ensure committed participation.

The students were required to conduct research to compose content for the wiki, and also each to critically assess another’s work. The final part of the project involved the students posting their work onto Wikipedia itself. This process was in keeping with the aim of the project to develop “elements designed to stimulate student autonomy and ownership of their learning experience by stimulating content production and participation in peer assessment activities”.

To ensure a strong collaborative culture the exact logistics of the peer review of draft pages was elaborated through discussions with the students, as was the exact balance of prescription and choice in topics to be covered in the wiki, although a list of exemplar topics was provided in the first instance.

As an added incentive to produce a useful piece of collaborative work the students were subsequently set an essay on a theme critiquing the development and role of the Advokatura in Russia as one of their compulsorily assigned pieces of formative writing. They were made aware that this would happen before they got to work on the wiki, on the understanding that they should find the information available through their shared efforts invaluable to the process of writing their essay. As their summative assessment at the end of the module was an essay style examination, it was envisaged that they would appreciate this constructive strategy.

Returning to learning: a student-centred approach to legal education on a part time programme

Is higher education complacent about part time students? Can it be right to accept differential pass rates between full and part time students as inevitable? Should we be doing more to aid the return to study of part time students?

Glenn reported on BPP’s Returning to Learning (R2L) project, introduced in session 2006-07 as part of the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). The R2L module, offered on a voluntary basis to all new part time students, aims to bridge the gap between students’ past studies and the GDL, and to meet the differences in approach and style of part time students.

In the module students are encouraged to reflect on their learning and to develop an awareness of their learning skills and styles. The R2L section of BPP’s VLE contains various documents and resources on returning to learning, including a ‘hot tips’ list from previous students, a learning contract, an assessment timeline exercise, and a study management exercise and timetable. Students are also offered the opportunity to complete Honey & Mumford’s Learning styles questionnaire. Students are guided through the use of the resources by their personal tutors.

Despite being disappointed by the uptake, the team are considering adaptations to the module and the possibility of extending its availability to all BPP law students, full or part time.

Improving student exam performance: a comparative approach

Peter took up where he left off in his paper Teaching students how to ‘think like a lawyer’ presented at LILI 2006, looking at improving exam performance particularly in students of colour at Pepperdine University in Malibu. He holds workshops to demonstrate to students that what they do before they come to class relates to what they do in class, which relates to what they do before they take their exams, which relates to what they do during the exam…almost like revealing the tricks of the trade to students who may not have the initial contacts or experience to understand exactly how law school works.

‘On trial’: teaching without talking: creativity in learning and teaching through the use of popular culture and law

Kirsten, a graphic design specialist at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth, engages her students in an intense deep learning experience by getting them to put ‘on trial’ an issue of importance to graphic design students. This creative approach to learning celebrates what Finkel (2000) calls “teaching with your mouth shut”.

The ‘On trial’ approach uses the format, language and dynamics of courtroom drama, as made popular and familiar to students through the media, as the context and vehicle to secure deep learning through dynamic role play, with the tutor as silent witness. The approach encourages a community of enquiry where students question, defend and judge an idea or problem, providing a creative learning experience that facilitates and celebrates students at the centre of all activity.

A recent example was ethics in graphic design. Students were given a (small) bundle of papers with some key sources at a point in their year where they had already come across ethical issues but had not been given any structured guidance (such as lectures) on the topic. Roles were assigned, they were given time to prepare – and then – according to the students co-presenting with Kirsten – they were “left to it”.

They were expected to pick up the court process from the wide range of media depictions available on both film and TV (suitable sources were provided in the bundle), and a student from the year above was appointed as judge to keep order.

From Kirsten’s perspective this must have been quite a traumatic experience. Would it work? Would the students engage in the process? Would it all peter out after 20 minutes or so?

Participants learned from the students that it was a roaring success and went on for several hours! Students did a great deal of research into the various issues and called witnesses (largely staff members and fellow students) to give evidence to support their arguments. Most of the group participated as witnesses or members of the jury. Kirsten herself did not take part but was merely a member of the public – hence “teaching without talking”.

The students found the experience to different degrees unsettling, invigorating, creative and deeply satisfying. They learned an enormous amount about ethical issues – and of course something about court processes (albeit a mixture of US and UK!). Kirsten did not participate on the day but was merely a member of the public, hence ‘teaching with your mouth shut’.

The format is still new and therefore being developed, but Kirsten intends to develop it further and perhaps to invite famous graphic artists to participate in future. The students were full of praise – they clearly found it an exciting and memorable experience. Questions from the audience indicated that some saw this as another aspect of mooting that could be developed – but saw the benefits of leaving the students to research a topic never formally covered elsewhere.

In an article on the ‘On trial’ approach in the Autumn 2007 issue of Directions Kirsten provides further information.

Breaking the system? Creativity in contemporary legal education

Scott’s paper evaluated the requirement for creativity within the legal education curriculum, examiningd the factors which can inhibit creativity and the instructional design and learning conditions in which it is a potential learning outcome.

In a legal environment which is increasingly systemic – both in terms of regulation and market practices – is there a need for creativity within the legal education curriculum, and, if so, how can this be provided? Throughout history lawyers have demonstrated creativity in the development of legislation, the common law and legal services. There have been cultural, social, political and technological drivers for this.

However in recent times a number of factors have brought pressure to bear, including rapid technological change, the development of a risk avoidance culture, growing student numbers and requirements to meet more rigorous quality assurance standards. Within legal practice and legal education these pressures can result in more systematic, at times efficiency-driven, models being adopted. Scott referred to Maister’s 3 Es theory (Expertise, Experience and Efficiency), in evidence in legal practice.

The Hermann Brain model for identifying personal attributes reveals that some people may be inherently more creative than others. Scott discussed research findings extracted from subjecting individuals and groups of staff in major law firms to Hermann Brain analysis, supporting the view that creativity may be more present in some types of legal work than others.

In Amman’s (Indiana University) view students embark on their courses with creative mindsets but then lose creativity through traditional patterns of learning the basics. It is only when they have learned the fundamental principles of law that they are encouraged to once again think creatively by applying that law.

Examples of both the encouragement of creativity and discouragement in the learning process were explored. Scott quoted from The Times (20 November 2006): “The reason why so many A grades are being obtained, many head teachers believe, is because the A level now consists of students being rewarded for memorising so-called model answers…rather than demonstrating any imagination of their own…could be marked down for being too thoughtful”.

On the other hand, QAA benchmark statement extracts for law expect students to be “able to create new of imaginative solutions through approaching a problem or using material in different ways”. Surprisingly, another pronouncement indicates that “although there is no expectation of originality of exposition or treatment, a first class answer is generally expected to spot points rarely seen. A high first (75+) is expected to display originality and excel in most if not all the aforementioned criteria”.

A useful summary of factors helping and hindering creativity is given in Facilitating creativity in higher education: the views of National Teaching Fellows (January 2006). On the positive side are students’ qualities and contributions, manageable workload (for staff), the nature of the discipline, resources, the system and its procedures, and the institution’s department or ethos. Restrictive factors included excessive non-teaching loads, unsuitable accommodation, inadequate preparation time, over-large classes, insufficient class contact time, constraints imposed because of colleagues’ requirements and inadequate resources.

Last Modified: 9 July 2010