July 19, 2012
The Straight-A Syndrome
When I was a school administrator, I often found that new teachers who had always made
straight A's sometimes struggled to understand why their students could not grasp concepts with the same ease. Those teachers understood deeply the material they were teaching, but they did not necessarily understand their own grasp of it -- in other words, how they had processed the material and mastered it. Lacking that key self-awareness, they had difficulty helping others process concepts deeply because they could not explain the intellectual steps they themselves used.
Law professors can often suffer from the same flaw. Having mastered the law with approaches that came to them seemingly intuitively, they find it perplexing that others cannot do the same if those others are intelligent and hardworking. They believe that students either have the ability to succeed in law school or they don't, and those that don't should wash out without any "propping up" by ASP programs.
Those of us in ASP would agree if things were so simple. In fact, ASP would be unnecessary, as some faculty contend, if success or failure in law school depended exclusively upon innate ability. What we know from our experience with students, however, is that innate ability is not enough; many with the innate ability to excel in law school fail to do so not because they lack the intellectual horsepower or the drive to succeed but because they have been inadequately trained in the strategies required to master the law and cannot make the intuitive leap that some of their more fortunate colleagues can make. That lack of training is by and large nothing more than the luck of the draw.
A student, for example, who has learned how to develop carefully constructed, text-based interpretations of literary works may transfer those skills rather quickly to the highly precise, text-based analyses of judicial opinions. For him, proving that he is accurately seeing the world through the eyes of the author may engage skills that now seem intuitive rather than learned. Another, equally bright student may never have had an opportunity to learn those skills before law school, so those skills come not through intuition but through explicit instruction. That student, once she has mastered the analytical skills, may be better equipped to articulate those skills and the steps to their mastery. She may also have a better sense of where students are likely to make missteps.
She is also likely, as a professor, to gravitate toward ASP or at least to support it. Her colleague for whom legal analysis seemed intuitive may drift in precisely the opposite direction, believing with his whole heart that providing students with ASP “crutches” damages the profession and misleads students who ought to spend their tuition money on something else.
One of the best things I ever did as director of our ASP program was to host luncheon meetings with small groups of professors who taught our first-year courses. I gave them a very brief overview of the program and then took five minutes to show them what I teach students to do for after-class review (I stole the after-class review strategy from Dennis Tonsing). Then I asked them for input to the program. I asked what they saw students struggling with and how I might help them develop strategies to learn more effectively.
The professors were thrilled with what the program was doing and eager to provide input. I have never done anything special that my ASP colleagues around the country are not doing, but now my fellow professors are in on the secret. They realize that I am not propping students up; instead I am handing them the keys to learning the law.
Our non-ASP colleagues are not necessarily insensitive or uncaring; they may simply have never realized how they themselves learn or how others can be taught those learning strategies successfully. We need to take the time to show them what we really do. Some of our colleagues suffer from the straight-A syndrome, and it has an antidote -- us.
July 19, 2012 | Permalink
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