January 21, 2007
See the Forest, Grasshopper
In a posting a few days ago, I discussed briefly the problem many students have seeing the forest for the trees. In talking with one of my students about that problem – one he had observed in himself and had overcome – I asked what he does to step back from the individual trees in the casebook and see the larger forest.
He told me that he takes each section of his outline and writes a prose explanation of the entire section, as if he were explaining it to someone else. He says, in effect, "Here's how defamation works." He then explains the basic concept: its rules, exceptions, defenses, competing minority and majority views, its underlying logic and its roots in public policy, etc.
He said that studying a linear outline does not pull those relationships together for him. Until he converts his outline into a coherent prose explanation, it is simply a list of concepts, not something he understands deeply and can manipulate to analyze a new set of facts.
Each prose explanation, on the other hand, becomes what he calls "the filter I pour the facts through." It his guide for sifting the facts to see where the questions lie and how the law might answer them. He does not use it, by the way, as a prewritten exam answer, a mechanical regurgitation of concepts into which he can sprinkle facts; he truly uses it as an analytical tool for attacking fact patterns and resolving the questions they raise.
What he has discovered is the power of learning by explaining. By forcing himself to explain the law to himself in writing, he necessarily comes to understand it more deeply and completely.
We who teach understand the dynamic he has discovered because we see it in our own work every day. Every teacher admits that she came to truly understand her subject when she had to make it clear to her students. My student simply applies that lesson to his own learning and makes himself teacher and student in the same moment. (dbw)
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