What Makes Your Subject Distinctive?

As law schools continue to develop their learning outcomes, an important question we all should consider is, “what makes my course distinctive?”  For example, in my research on assessment in legal research courses, I was struck by how much the analytical and problem solving skills developed by legal research instruction are the same as those developed by many other courses in the law school curriculum.  That led me to ask, “what makes legal research instruction distinctive?”  The answer was not simply, as an outsider might suggest, that legal research classes teach tools for finding law (digests, Westlaw, etc.).  Rather, I was struck that legal research instruction is distinctive in the extent to which an effective legal researcher must have an appreciation for the power of taxonomies, must exercise imagination in the context of realistic boundaries of time, cost, and purpose, must be able to ask for help, and must develop strong metacognitive practices (to continually question “is this process working?”).  The difference is of degree rather than kind of course, but it is a distinctive difference nonetheless.

Given the narrow focus of legal education, it seems that this question of distinctiveness or “value added” is the most critical question I can ask in planning my courses.  Not that the distinctive outcomes of my courses should be the sole, or even dominant outcomes.  Legal education outcomes require an iterative process and cross-curricular experiences for students to become competent and to enable transfer of learning to new settings.  Yet, understanding what makes my outcomes distinctive forces me to justify my outcomes and consider their connections with other law school outcomes.

So what makes my outcomes in Professional Responsibility distinctive?  Certainly the identity of the anticipated uses of the doctrine we are learning leads me to choose to emphasize professional identity formation outcomes as important if not distinctive.  In most law school courses, students are learning the law to serve others and are encouraged to use, interpret, and advocate about the law to achieve a client’s objectives.  In Professional Responsibility, the students will be using the law to advise themselves.  My outcomes include expecting that students will be able to clarify their observational standpoint when considering issues of professional ethics; recognize that self interest clouds judgment and ways to gain more objectivity; and differentiate the approaches to interpretation of law that one might use to advocate for a client regarding past conduct from approaches that are wise, ethical, and effective when interpreting the law to guide our own future conduct.  Finding effective methods to assess students development of these perspective is a challenge but I have found that simply asking students to read cases of attorney discipline and ask, “what went wrong with the attorney’s thinking?” is a good place to start.

What makes your course outcomes distinctive?  How has that led to distinctive assessment practices?

Building on Best Practices now available as eBook

Are you trying to:

  • Develop a meaningful law school mission statement?
  • Understand new accreditation requirements, learning goals, and outcomes assessment?
  •  Expand your experiential offerings?  Decide whether to use modules or courses?  An on-site clinic, an externship, or community partnership?
  •  Teach ALL of your students in the most effective ways, using a full range of teaching methods?
  • Add to your curriculum more of the professional identity, leadership, intercultural, inter-professional and other knowledge, skills, and values sought by 21st century legal employers?
  • Lead thoughtfully in the face of the challenges facing legal education today?

These and other topics are addressed in Building on Best Practices:  Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World,  now available in ebook format from LexisNexis at no charge.

The print version is not yet out.  LEXIS-NEXIS is taking advance orders for $50, plus shipping.  BUT we understand that they will make one copy available to every US legal educator for free upon on request.  Details on this and international availability still to come.

Thanks, and congratulations, to book project sponsor Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA), the more than fifty legal educators who participated as authors, and the countless others who assisted as readers and in numerous other ways.

And, a huge shout-out to my wonderful and talented co-editors, Lisa Radke Bliss, Carrie Wilkes Kaas, and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez.

A 21st Century “generalist legal education”? Skills & professional identity focused.

More musings on generalist v. specialist education, and how much doctrine law schools need to teach.

A conversation with one of our University of Washington alums — Leo Flor, Westpoint grad, Gates Public Service Law Scholar, Equal Justice Works Fellow at Northwest Justice Project, and spark plug for the new resource Representing Washington Veterans  — has me chewing on whether we need a new understanding of what a “generalist legal education” means.

Leo noted that the JD is often viewed as a relevant generalist credential, even though most law school grads move into traditional bar-passage-required “law practice” jobs.  And he observed that many job postings for alternative positions list an MBA or MPA as a relevant qualification, but not the JD.

The traditional generalist education of my era, and to a significant extent still, was intended to teach a set of analytical skills and and expose students to a broad range of legal doctrine potentially relevant to a general practitioner and to passing the bar exam. Though passing the bar remains important and is a significant factor in designing the educational program for lower tier schools, few 21st century lawyers are truly general practitioners.

Perhaps the generalist foundation needed in this era is built on skills, more than doctrinal knowledge.  And for Leo’s purpose not only skills in a technician sense.  Skills also in a “professional identity” sense.  Self-awareness & understanding of ones’ own gifts.  Leadership and interpersonal skills. Such an understanding of generalist could make the JD an appropriate credential for the types of job Leo described.

In a previous post, I suggested that that, at least for those students who come to law school with significant self-knowledge and experience, a substantively specialized curriculum could make sense, if combined with the general analytical and research skills to learn new areas.  This is not a new  idea.  Back in 2002 then-law-student Kevin E. Houchen self-published a detailed review of the trend toward certificate programs and concentrations, arguing that for a subset of students such specialization makes sense.

A decade later in 2012 the New York Times touted  NYU’s  limited moves toward greater specialization not just once, but again in an article  promoting specialization for law schools focused on Biglaw.

And in early May of this year 2015 at the National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services sponsored by the ABA and Stanford Law School, speakers reiterated these themes.   Richard Susskind (13:08) argued that legal education needs to train graduates for 21sth century jobs like legal project managers, legal process analysts, legal knowledge engineers, and legal risk management.  Prof. Deborah Rhode(13.29) observed that it “makes no sense to train Wall Street M &A lawyers the same way we train someone who’s going to be doing routine real estate and divorce work in a small town.”

It is not so very difficult to understand what acting on Prof. Rhode’s observation might mean.  As a practical matter, some curricular differentiation based on where graduates will practice already takes place, linked primarily to  different levels in the law school hierarchy.  Beyond that, many schools offer an extensive enough curriculum – both in doctrine and skills — to permit considerable specialization aimed at traditional law practice niches, even beyond formal concentration tracks and certificate programs.

For more specialized training law schools that offer extensive LL.M. programs routinely allow students to complete an accelerated JD/LL.M in three calendar years.  In the tax field, where the LL.M. has long been de rigueur, many schools provide such opportunities, including NYU, the long-time leader in tax LL.M’s.  And increasingly, schools educate students not just in substantive tax specialties, but also — using my own school, the University of Washington as an example — with  tax-focused skills and clinical training for both JD. and LL.M. students.

My hunch is that increasing numbers of students already opt to specialize, sometimes with a substantive law focus, often combined with a skills focus, e.g.  corporate deals with drafting or criminal & tort law with trial advocacy.

Richard Susskind’s challenge is a bigger stretch for legal education, though, again, some initiatives are visible, such as Michigan State‘s Reinvent Law Laboratory.

A key challenge for law schools is to learn how to identify prospective students or develop admitted ones who understand their life goals and values, and their intellectual and personal gifts well enough to make intelligent decisions around specialization.  To meet that  challenge, a holistic approach to education is needed –whether understood in the MacCrate framework of knowledge,  skills and values, or the Carnegie framework of cognitive, professional skills and ethical professional identity apprenticeships.

Inner Development, Community, Social Justice (Concurrent Session, AALS Conference on Clinical Legal Education)

Last, but not least, in this series highlighting lessons from experts in other disciplines relevant to how to navigate the chaotic “new normal”  in legal education: Thursday’s concurrent session organized by Tennessee’s Paulette Williams:  “A Commitment to Inner Development: Connecting the “New Normal” with Clinics’ Social Justice Mission”.

The session brought  Edward Groody and Timothy Dempsey from the Community Building Institute in Tennessee.  The Institute helps social service and criminal justice organizations become more effective by training participants in community building practices.  Taking an evidence-based approach built on motivational interviewing, trauma-informed care, and pro-social supports, community building is a “highly experiential process that helps participants remove barriers to communication and unlearn unproductive attitudes and behaviors.”

Groody began the session with a detailed overview of a four-stage process for building community:

  • Pseudo-community
  • Chaos
  • Emptying/Letting Go
  • Community

That process adds an important step — emptying/letting go — to Bruce Tuckman’s familiar “forming, storming, norming, performing” model of group formation.  My own interpretation of this additional,  third step is that it provides space for  participants to recognize,  and learn skills to address, the emotional issues that so often get in the way of honest connection with others.

Dempsey then shared powerful stories of how that process helps ex-offenders with post-prison re-entry,  allowing them to move past behavioral responses that may have seemed — and perhaps were — functional in their previous lives, but would block their efforts to move forward.   Or, to put it another way, this step acknowledges that in order to take advantage of education or employment opportunities, people need to let go of fears, resentments or trauma.  This is challenging work that is the foundation of many spiritual traditions, but can help build strong connections with others.

Time constraints prevented Paulette Williams from speaking in detail about how she makes use of this process in her clinical teaching work.  I hope she finds other forums for sharing those experiences and insights.

The insights of this community building process struck me as relevant not only to social justice and clinical legal education work, but also to faculty interactions within our law schools.  From another time and place, I well remember a year when every faculty meeting resulted in controversy, usually about something relatively minor that seemed to be a proxy for other, larger, but unacknowledged issues festering beneath the surface.    I suspect that many faculties are experiencing something similar as they operate  in the  current climate of uncertainty and change, too often getting stuck in the fear those conditions foster.  It’s  difficult for me to imagine applying this model in the typical law school environment.  But successfully moving through the “emptying/letting go” phase, as individuals and a group,  could be oh, so helpful!

Lessons from “Counseling Our Students” (Mini-Plenary at AALS Conference on Clinical Education)

At the recent AALS Conference on Clinical Education two additional sessions provided important insights from experts iin other disciplines on how to operate effectively in the midst of the current period of change in legal education.

Wednesday;s Mini-Plenary on Counseling Our Students In the New Normal included an inspiring guest speaker who was even more impressive as a listener.

Moderated by Mercer’s Tim Floyd, the session began with a helpful overview of the current state of the job market (bottom line:  recovering, slowly) by Abraham Pollack, GW’s  Professional Development dean. But the centerpiece of the session was Carolyn McKanders, Co-Director and Director or Organizational Culture, Thinking Collaborative and, not incidentally, mother of Tennessee’s Karla McKanders,

Carolyn brilliantly demonstrated “cognitive coaching” (check out the app!) in an unscripted coaching session that allowed Mary Lynch (yes, that Mary Lynch,  Editor of this blog) to expand  her acting career into improv. The session was designed to help Mary think through her goals and approaches in counseling students on career development in an environment where predictable and linear career tracks are no longer the norm.

After the role play Carolyn summarized three keys to cognitive coaching:  pausing, paraphrasing and posing questions (with a rising inflection that communicates curiosity and openness, not control or credibility).  The beauty of this approach is that it helps the individual “self-monitor, self-analyze, and self-evaluate“.

The session certainly reinforced three lessons that clinicians should know; after all, a foundational goal of clinical legal education is fostering reflection, and most of us teach interviewing and counseling, at least to some extent.

  • First, the power of listening.  In a world of fast talking, sometimes monologue-happy, often living-in-our-heads law professors, so easy for this lesson to “go missing”  if we ruminate worriedly, trying to cope with the new normal in faculty and committee meetings and informal conversations.
  • Second, the value of paraphrasing for understanding to ensure accurate communication.
  • And finally, the importance of  founding our questions on authentic curiosity — listening in order to understand, not to counter an argument.

In a constantly changing world, where so many verities are in play, it’s too easy for us to get stuck in fear and suspicion.  Though the stated rationale for the mini-plenary was to help us counsel students, for me it spoke at least as powerfully to how we can most effectively interact  with our colleagues.  And, perhaps, “counsel” ourselves.

In the next, and final post of this series, I’ll discuss a Thursday concurrent that linked “inner development” with community building and social justice.

Building on Best Practices for Legal Education Manuscript Submitted to Publisher

Four editors,  59 authors, 92 readers, three copy editors, librarians from two schools, a secretary, miscellaneous consultants, three student assistants for bluebooking, and one for setting up perrmacc links.*

Many people, occasionally in multiple roles, were needed to produce the manuscript sent to Lexis last Monday for the forthcoming book Deborah Maranville, Lisa Radtke Bliss, Carolyn Wilkes Kaas, and Antoinette Sedillo López (eds.),  Building on Best Practices:  Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World. (Lexis 2015).  A monster project — but, as I assured a friend, no, not a manuscript about monsters and not monstrously unpleasant to produce – just big, ambitious, and sometimes exhausting for the editors and authors.  A big thank you to all who participated!

The book is a follow up to CLEA’s Best Practices for Legal Education, the 2007 volume by Roy Stuckey and others that inspired this blog.  Like Best Practices, this book will be distributed for free to legal educators.  Lexis has promised to make it available in electronic format through their e-book library and to provide print copies on request.  Look for it in four to six months — if all goes smoothly perhaps in time for the AALS Clinical Legal Education Conference in early May.

The coverage of Building on Best Practices is wide-ranging.  To quote from the Introduction, “[t]his volume builds on the call to link mission and outcomes; emphasizing the themes of integrating theory, doctrine and practice, developing the broader spectrum of skills needed by lawyers in the twenty-first century, and taking up the question how best to shift law school cultures to facilitate change.”

Advance praise for the book has included:

  • “[M]ilestone in legal education . . . that legal educators will rely on as much as . . . on the first Best Practices book.”  (Patty Roberts, William & Mary)
  • “Educational for folks who don’t know much about experiential education and insightful for those who do. . . .Really something to be proud of . . . an invaluable resource to schools as they go to work on implementing the ABA’s new requirements for learning outcomes and assessment. . .The perfect product coming out at the perfect time.” (Kate Kruse, Hamline)

Once again, CLEA deserves kudos for its support of an important scholarly project on legal education.  And the Georgia State University, University of New Mexico, Quinnipiac University, and University of Washington Law Schools deserve a big round of thanks for supporting the co-editors in this project.

https://perma.cc/ provides an archive for those annoying website links that quickly become outdated.

Five Problems to Avoid in Writing Student Learning Outcomes

As law faculty across the country strive to improve student learning and meet ABA standards of accreditation through the assessment process, it is perhaps appropriate to stop and assess our efforts in that regard.  Here are five common problems that occur when first writing learning outcomes for a course:

1. Don’t focus on you – focus on the students
Student learning outcomes are designed to give students an idea of what they will be learning.  Avoid learning outcomes that describe what or how your will teach and instead focus on what the students will be able to know, do, or believe.

NOT: UMKC457  Trees as Thought
Student learning outcome:  In this course, I will be exploring the philosophical thought experiment “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  I will explain my book “Trees as Focal Points for Reality” and refute critics of the proposals presented therein.

BETTER: UMKC457  Thought Experiments
Student learning outcome:  At the end of this course, students will be able to think critically and communicate effectively the metaphysical theories regarding the existence of that which cannot be perceived. Students will be able to describe how the theory of subjective idealism has impacted religious and scientific philosophy.  Through discussion and written reflection, students will demonstrate clarification of their individual values.

2. Avoid Vague Verbs
Probably one of the most common verbs found in student learning outcomes is “understand,” as in “students will understand [course content].” The problem with this as a learning outcome is that it is difficult to know what evidence would demonstrate that understanding.  A student learning outcome that uses more active and concrete verbs can unpack the type and degree of “understanding” that a professor expects.

NOT:   LAW8000  Family Law
Student learning outcome:  Students will understand the law regarding marriage regulation and the constitutional constraints on that regulation and the law of divorce, including child custody.

BETTER:  LAW 8000 Family Law
Student learning outcome: At the end of this course, students will be able to:
• identify the legal issues raised by a fact pattern involving a marriage regulation, make critical and effective arguments regarding the meaning of that regulation and its constitutional validity, and confidently predict the outcome of a challenge to that regulation
• identify relevant facts necessary to gather from a client seeking a divorce and child custody with property including real estate and pensions; draft a complete and legally effective petition for that divorce and custody action, including a parenting plan; and identify legal issues and make critical and effective arguments, applying the statutory and case law, to determine the divorce, property division, child custody and economic support in the case.
To read more about it, see Chapter Two. Understanding Understanding, of GRANT WIGGINS & JAY MCTIGHE, UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN (2nd Ed. 2005).

3. Avoid “elementitis”
A student learning outcome should not merely summarize the syllabus or be a list of topics the course will cover.  Rather, the student learning outcomes should focus on thematic elements that tie these topics together or ways in which the students will be able to use this knowledge.  As David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education notes:
We educators always face the challenge of helping our students approach complex skills and ideas. So what to do? The two most familiar strategies are learning by elements and learning about. In the elements approach, we break down the topic or skill into elements and teach them separately, putting off the whole game until later — often much later….to have a little fun I call it ‘elementitis.’
DAVID PERKINS, MAKING LEARNING WHOLE: HOW SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF TEACHING CAN TRANSFORM EDUCATION (2010).  Avoid student learning outcomes that are plagues by “elementitis” and describe instead what it is students will be able to do with course coverage.

4. Don’t Always Expect Mastery
Student learning outcomes should indicate not only the content the students will learn but how well they will learn it.  We cannot aim for mastery of all aspects of the course.  Rather, learning outcomes in some courses are necessarily going to be at an introductory level (students will “recognize” or “describe” or “identify”) while other outcomes may be aimed at higher levels of mastery.  An effective tool to determine the proficiency level of your learning outcomes is Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which provides a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated learning outcomes.  To read more about it and see a list of verbs associated with differing levels of learning, see Rex Heer, A Model of Learning Objectives from Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching (2012). To read an application of this model to law school, see Paul Callister, Time to Blossom: An Inquiry into Bloom’s Taxonomy as a Hierarchy and Means for Teaching Legal Research Skills 202:2 LAW LIBRARY JOURNAL 191 (2010-12).

5. Don’t Avoid Outcomes that May be Difficult to Measure
Student learning outcomes for a classroom rarely will focus entirely on the acquisition of knowledge.  At a minimum, most classes expect students to develop their cognitive and communication skills in using the knowledge base of the course.  Courses may also help students to clarify values, reconsider beliefs, appreciate new perspectives, or develop greater self-awareness.  Some faculty recognize that these skills and values are some of the most important benefits that students take away from the courses, but are reluctant to state these as learning outcomes because they are unable to “test” these outcomes.  However, any important skill or value can be assessed – even if there is a good deal of subjectivity involved in that assessment.  By stating these objectives as learning outcomes, faculty members can challenge themselves and their students to more clearly describe the dimensions of this learning.  Measurements of this learning may be through written reflections, observations of performance, or surveys of opinions.  These are perfectly valid assessment tools.

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