Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Best Teacher

A few minutes ago, I asked a student how he was doing, and he said, "I'm doing okay, except for having to teach myself a couple of courses.  Maybe that's normal for law school." 

My first thought was, "No, what is normal for law school is teaching yourself every course that you take."

Students, especially in the first year, rely far too heavily on professors to "teach them the material."  I often hear the complaint that this or that professor does not make the material clear.  I understand the frustration, but the reality is that good students teach themselves the law and use class time as an opportunity to refine and extend their understanding.  They become their own best teachers.

We know, as a number of researchers have pointed out, that students read law more effectively if they have a purpose in mind as they read and if they take time to "talk to the text."  In other words, the best readers move beyond a passive approach to reading and engage the text as if they will use it to solve a problem, predict an outcome under a new set of facts, etc.  They think actively as they read, questioning their understanding often aloud and forcing themselves to clarify what they do not grasp cleanly.

One way I inspire students to read in that way is to encourage them to read as if they will have to teach the material to the class.  If they take the advice seriously, they find themselves "talking to the text" because they have to explain to themselves what they have learned before they can explain it to another.  They cannot afford to simply gloss over their confusion and hope for someone else to make it clear.  They have to tease out the logic, restate the principles in other ways, ask why as often as what, and figure out how the principles fit into the larger context of the course and of the law as a whole.

The technique is especially helpful for former teachers because they have a good sense of what being prepared to teach requires.  A good teacher must understand the material so well that she can explain it to the poorest student on the one hand and explore its outer boundaries with the best student on the other.

Law school is a place for the self-taught.  After all, practice is a place for the self-taught.  Nice, neat outlines of the law  are not generally available in the real world, where clients' problems are complex and law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  The lawyer who thinks he can find a treatise or even a looseleaf to solve all his clients' concerns is a lawyer who is certain to commit malpractice. 

Nor will there be a professor to make everything clear.  I like to tell students that they are free to call me for an explanation of the law when they are practitioners and I'll be happy to give it, but I'll charge $500 per hour and talk very slowly. 

Law students might as well get the message early on that they must take charge of their own learning.  Professors expect them to do so because professors usually see class time as a place to explore the underpinnings and the implications of the legal principles students have encountered, and they expect students to do most of the exploring. 

If students can learn to stop reading for class and start reading to learn deeply and to do so without anyone's help, they will finally graduate from undergraduate school, not just in form but in substance.  They will become true students of the law rather than frustrated spectators. (dbw)

 

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