Unlearning as Learning Outcome

As the newly revised ABA accreditation standards 301 and 302 now require law schools to clearly articulate and publish their learning outcomes for their students, so individual faculty members must do likewise. Yet it is not uncommon to see these learning outcomes statements that read like the table of contents of the textbook used to teach the course. To truly be effective in driving learning and teaching, learning outcomes must be targeted, concrete, measurable and active (not “learning about” but “learning how to”).

How do we most effectively choose and articulate these learning outcomes? In MAKING LEARNING WHOLE: HOW SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF TEACHING CAN TRANSFORM EDUCATION 83-89 (2010)., educational specialist David Perkins emphasizes that learning is most effective if learners “work on the hard parts.” Similarly, the UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN framework, originally developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, emphasizes beginning the search for course goals by looking for the “Big Idea” in the course. These are the ideas or themes that can be used throughout a legal career and that require a lot of work to master.

One of the most effective ways to uncover these “big ideas’ or ‘hard parts” is to focus first on unlearning outcomes – that is, preventing and addressing predictable misunderstandings in the course. Thus, for example, much of the first year of law school is devoted to “unlearning” the positivist philosophy of students who believe the law is resolutely determinate. These fundamental misunderstandings are persistent, difficult to overcome and block learning of new ideas. Students construct knowledge by building on prior understandings. If those prior understandings are incomplete or incorrect, new learning will be flawed as well. As summarized by NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL, COMMITTEE ON DEVELOPMENTS IN THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING, HOW PEOPLE LEARN: BRAIN, MIND, EXPERIENCE, AND SCHOOL: EXPANDED EDITION 11 (2000), “teachers need to pay attention to the incomplete understandings, the false beliefs, and the naive renditions of concepts that learners bring with them to a given subject.”

In her new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) ( 2014), Elizabeth Green reviews the research concluding that effective teachers (as measured by student learning gains) are those who are able to identify the reasons that students misunderstand and help them to unlearn those misunderstandings.

Some of the most fundamental misconceptions that students bring to a subject from their own experience (or from bad course outlines passed around from prior semesters) must be discovered in the classroom. Brief classroom assessment devices such as “minute papers” or statements for the students to complete can easily generate a range of incorrect or incomplete understandings for any given topic.  The mission to discover student errors leads faculty to many of the best practices in teaching: regular interaction with students, frequent and meaningful feedback, and active learning strategies.

The power of an “unlearning” perspective on assessment improves student learning, but also quickly leads faculty to a deeper understanding of what assessment of student learning oucomes means.  Assessment is not an end-point, a box to be checked, reported and forgotten, but is an iterative process of discovery and experiment that drives students and faculty learning alike. Assessment tools (such as quizzes, socratic dialogue, essays, simulations, and reflections) might be used to unearth student misconceptions.  These misconceptions then become the basis for the learning outcomes around which one can build a course and assessments then can be used to determine the extent to which one is successfully dislodging misunderstanding and misconception and replace it with a solid framework mastery.

Shultz and Zedeck: Collaboration and Motivation in Orientation!

One-Ls at Albany Law, just like those at many other schools, are in the midst of Fall 2014 Orientation. Today, I participated as a  “faculty observer” in a collaborative skill building exercise organized by our Associate Dean Alicia Ouellette.  Imagine my delight to see copies of Schultz and Zedeck’s 26 lawyering effectiveness factors distributed at each table in the school gym!

Teams of 20-25 students, most of whom had either just met each other or not yet met, were tasked with:

  • Assembling a small children’s bike (to be donated to the Boys and Girls Club); the first team to both build the bike and have a team member ride the teeny-tiny bike around the orange cone course set in the gym would be declared winner. :)
  • Building the tallest pasta-marshmallow structure
  • Making sure every student on the team participated in the endeavor.

Faculty participants were assigned to observe what they saw happen during the group exercise, report their observations to their student team, and explore with the student teams questions such as:

  • what worked well?
  • what was challenging about  mandatory collaboration?
  • what might they have done differently to more effectively collaborate?
  • what might these exercises suggest about effective lawyering?

The students brought good humor to the task.  They brought a range of experiences, including a few with engineering backgrounds and/or “mom/dad” know-how, and a range of abilities. The fact that the bikes were to be REALLY used by local community members was a motivating factor.  In fact, students vocally expressed concern about the safety of the quickly assembled bikes noting,  “Remember, some kid is going to ride this!” and “It has to be safe.”

By the end of the assigned time period, everyone in my group had participated …. at least a bit. The debriefing was more effective than one might have predicted. One student on my team noted gender differences in approaches – a number of women were reading instructions for assembling the bike while a few of the males started to immediately put pieces of the bike together. This led to a discussion of THE CONFIDENCE GAP.  Another student noted the difference between working on a task when you know what the outcome should look like (the bike) and working on a concept without a uniform or agreed upon vision of what the outcome looks like (the highest pasta structure). Many students reflected on the significant importance of communication skills, particularly listening.

Other teams reflected on the challenge of being asked to accomplish a collective task when most members of the team felt inadequately prepared. With faculty guidance, that team explored when that might happen in law school or in practice.  Issues such as time management, resource management – one team ran out of tape – and problem solving techniques were also discussed. Students, encouraged by faculty suggestions, also pondered what kind of teams they might participate in their post-graduation future .

As I looked around the tables, I could not help but think of Richard Susskind’s book,  Tomorrows Lawyers.  These one-Ls will be entering a profession and a world in which working with others, problem solving, creative thinking, and clear communication will be even more critical for those in our profession than in times past.   As graduates, these students will be participating in teams and in collaborative enterprises that we faculty probably cannot now envision.  However, it is our job to facilitate their acquisition of the kinds of skills and capacities and attitudes that will best serve them in the uncertain but potentially exciting future.   Happy New Semester all! Happy Facilitating!

Orientation 20140813_142119

 

Orientation Pic 2 Orientation Pic 7 Orientation Pic 6 Orientation Pic 5 Orientation Pic 4 Orientation Pic 3 Orientation Pic 1

The Baby Has Finally Been Birthed!

Comprehensive revisions passed

The ABA House of Delegates passed the comprehensve revisions with “minimal  fuss” according to the ABA Journal linked  above.  One area, however, garnered  significant attention and also resulted in  an odd, though perhaps meaningless ,  procedural move.  The House voted  to send back to the Section on Legal Education for further consideration the comment to standard 305 which prohibits payment to students for credit-based courses.

What does this mean? Law schools which have not already done so must start identifying, articulating publicly and assessing student learning out outcomes, providing every student six  credits of clinic or clinic-like experiential courses and requiring students to take two credit hours worth of professional responsibility coursework.

Well, it’s a start……

Transferring Best Practices to a Domestic Violence Agency–i.e. the real world

On February 1, 2014 I left the ivory tower of a law school I had loved for 27 years to become the executive director of Enlace Comunitario, a non-profit agency focused on eliminating domestic violence in Latino immigrant communities through intervention services such as case management, counseling and legal services and prevention activities such as leadership development, education and outreach.   This was a big transition for me, but I am loving it!  And, my long time involvement with Best Practices for Legal Education has paid off in this context.  How, you might ask, are the skills transferable?  Well I will give some examples in my next few posts…but I will share immediately that I am working to create a teaching and learning culture at my agency.   Specifically, my goal is to build the capacity of folks in the agency so that when I step down one or several of the staff members will feel ready to take on the helm. And, of course, I will want staff members to step up to take their place. Already, we are training a counselor to become a counselor supervisor and we are training a former receptionist to become a case manager. I love seeing my staff take on the teaching role! And, they are good at it.

So…one of the foundational principles of best practices is to work to develop learning objectives for your students.  Well, it is not a stretch to work with staff members and develop learning objectives with them!  And, creating evaluations that fit the job duties and the learning objectives was fun:  Each job criteria or learning objective is evaluated as follows:  “in training”, “needs improvement” “good work” or “awesome, can teach this knowledge, skill or value”.   So far the staff has responded positively to the new evaluation process.  We will finish up this month!  I will let you know how it goes!

Five Tool Lawyers

Leading Northwest legal practitioner and technology entrepreneur Marty Smith has an interesting post on the Five Tool Lawyer over at Legal Refresh. Using the metaphor of the Five Tool Lawyer, Marty breaks apart the stages of problem solving, incorporating risk analysis in a way I found helpful. In my response Five Tool Lawyers and Legal Education, I critique aspects of the Five Tool Lawyer metaphor for compressing too much into the 1st [Use interviewing skills to gather client facts, goals and needs] and 5th tools[Counsel, document, negotiate and advocate on behalf of client]. But here’s why I thought the metaphor was compelling:

"Compelling, because [it] moves beyond issue spotting v. problem solving to articulate the stages of problem solving, targeting a spotlight on often overlooked aspects. . . . By focusing on risk, the metaphor highlights two often neglected stages of the lawyer’s work – “use judgment to assess actual risks” and “problem solve for best way to meet client’s needs with minimal risk.” At the same time, it implicitly places the legal problem in the larger context of the individual’s life, or the business’s health. And it underscores the fact that lawyers need to know how to assess the significance of legal risks within that larger context."

The definitive statement of a law professor’s REAL mission, or once again Harvard Law retires the chutzpah title

I cannot improve upon Scott Fruehwald’s presentation of this happy news in a recent email:

“Harvard is offering this course in the spring:

BECOMING A LAW PROFESSOR

“There are many elements that go into becoming a law professor, but at the core of the process of moving from law student to law professor is scholarship.  How do you choose your topic?  How do you write an article?  What will become your area of expertise?  What have others written about this subject area, and how do you break new ground?  How do you engage with fellow scholars in the midst of the writing process?

This reading group will focus on the generative scholarly process that is at the center of the life of the law professor.  [Emphasis added.]  Each week, a member of the faculty will present a working draft of her or his scholarship, and that piece will be discussed by the group.  Discussions will focus in part on the genesis of the research project being presented, in order to demonstrate how articles develop from the first spark of an idea to final publication.  Students will also explore substantive issues raised in the pieces, the better to become familiar with the latest work being done across a variety of subject areas.  Students will also develop their own research and scholarly agendas as the semester progresses.

Admission is by application via email to Susannah Barton Tobin at stobin@law.harvard.edu by November 8, 2013.  Please include a paragraph expressing your interest in the reading group and a CV and transcript.

As is the norm with reading groups, there will be no examination or paper requirement, and the class will be graded credit/fail.” (http://www.law.harvard.edu/academics/curriculum/catalog/index.html?term=Spring+2014&type=Clinic&type=Course&type=Reading+Group&type=Seminar&rows=10&year=2013-2014)

The course description says it all.

Happy New Year,  Scott Fruehwald  [If you are attending the AALS Conference, please come by the ABA Publishing table and look at my book, Think Like a Lawyer: Legal Reasoning for Law Students and Business Professionals (2013).]”

All right, I [VM] cannot resist adding one comment:  The best part of this deal is that the participating faculty actually get teaching credit for this!   Well, maybe no, teaching is probably not exactly a heavy load at HLS anyway; no, maybe the best part is that the selected students (or their parents/spouses, or the US government) are paying tuition for them to serve as extra unpaid research assistants.

Or perhaps the very best part of this course is the unabashed clarity of its focus exclusively on scholarship, without a shred of pretense, or allocation of even a single seminar to such irrelevancies  as teaching, advising, evaluating and assessing, mentoring, curriculum development, preparation for practice, or engaging (with and without students) in advocacy to improve and reform the law, our profession, or society — to mention only a few of the professorial roles one might name.   (Perhaps all these skills are innate for Harvard grads?)  This course was presumably approved by at least a bare majority of the Harvard faculty (assuming that they still bother to review course proposals) so I suppose it is an accurate  statement of that faculty’s priorities.

The truly sad part is that many of us, on Appointments Committees and as faculty members, will end up not merely voting to hire the graduates of this course, but trying everything in our power to lure them on to our faculties — including promises that as long as they churn out scholarship that is “cutting edge” (nothing as pedestrian as, say, realistic law reform proposals), no one will expect them to work as hard at learning how to teach effectively or fulfill any of the other aforementioned professorial functions.  And in the course of discussions about how to seduce these young superstars who wear the crimson “H” on to third-tier faculties (at least to start), no doubt someone will point out “Look, s/he took a course on law teaching at Harvard!  One with the evocative title of ‘Becoming A Law Professor’!  What could be a better indicator of serious commitment to teaching?”

Footnote:  Naturally, given the topic, I feel compelled to add at least one:  Of course, these remarks would be seriously misplaced if “Becoming A Professor” is one of several HLS courses or programs, some of which address the aspects of professorship that I am asserting Harvard neglects.  I can’t be sure — the hundreds of courses in the HLS catalog are just too daunting — but I did try searching the past three years for any course that included the terms “teach” “teaching” “education”  “educate” “professor” “school” and some others.  Only one item surfaced, a legal history course last spring entitled “American Legal Education,” taught by Visiting Professor Daniel Coquillette.  http://www.law.harvard.edu/academics/curriculum/catalog/index.html?type=Clinic&type=Course&type=Reading+Group&type=Seminar&rows=10&year=2012-2013  It does sound fascinating, a course that I would recommend to students and enjoy myself.  While certainly it would be of use to anyone who aspires to the law professoriate, given its scope and format it does not quite occupy a curricular niche comparable to the new scholar-centric offering.

Congratulations UNM and Editors of the proposed new Best Practices Book!

This weekend, the University of New Mexico hosted a workshop BEST PRACTICES IN LEGAL EDUCATION: The Walls Are Coming Down” in which draft chapters of a new “Best Practices” book were reviewed and discussed.  The proposal to create a second book focused on best practices in legal education is the brainchild of Professor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, ably assisted by Professors Deborah Maranville, , Carolyn Kaas and Lisa Bliss. The symposium workshop brought together law professors from throughout the country interested in how legal education and the world of law schools has changed since the publication of the 2007 book Best Practices in Legal Education. Facilitated by Professors Beryl Blaustone and Alex Scherr, the conference explored how many law professors fluidly move from former silos of clinical, legal writing, lawyering, librarian, doctrinal, theory, or skills concentrations to pioneer a new kind of curriculum, better prepare students for the profession, explore the limits and usefulness of technology, and deepen the understanding and learning of law students through self-improving assessment processes.

Fully cognizant of the pressures on legal educators, the fact that not all in legal education welcome the need to change, and the moral imperative to address the concerns of debt-ridden unemployed law students, the authors, editors, advisory board members and readers reviewed challenges, cross-cutting themes and areas of promise. They engaged in innovative thinking about how to move legal education forward for the good of the profession, society and the students who desire to be lawyers of tomorrow. The keynote speaker for the Friday night dinner and author of the first book, Professor Roy Stuckey, directed the participants’ attention to what legal education should look like in 2027. At the same time, he reminded us that those seeking to improve legal education today stand on the shoulders of folks such as the honorable Rosalie Wahl and former ABA president Bob MacCrate who paved the way for the changes we have seen in the last 40 years. He recalled their joint mission to prepare “agents for justice in our communities.”

Every law graduate needs to understand fully that civic professional role of the lawyer. And every admittee to the bar has a sworn duty to improve our system of and access to justice. Returning to those principles can help prioritize our cost-cutting and can position us to move forward in the best interests of our students, our institutions and the society our profession is pledged to serve.

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