Friday, April 12, 2013

Law school instruction and the "spiral curriculum"

If you have been trained in educational theory or the philosophy of education, you made have heard the phrase "spiral curriculum" during your studies. The idea of a spiral curriculum comes from the work of Jerome Bruner, a highly influential professor of education, who went on to mentor Howard Gardner, the father of Multiple Intelligences. The spiral curriculum posits that students learn best when exposed to material repeatedly. As students gain understanding of the material, it is revisited with added depth and complexity. Another element of the spiral curriculum is that teaching should begin by building upon current knowledge.

Law school curriculum would be improved if it borrowed from the idea of a spiral curriculum. The first step, discovery, posits that students learn best when they "discover" knowledge on their own. Bruner wrote quite a bit about using discovery methods when teaching math. He even wrote about using the Socratic method when teaching math. When learning is based on a speaker and a listener (as is often the case in the law school classroom) the listener has to create their own knowledge. But most of the time, the listener gets bored and distracted. The listener is not engaged with the process of learning, they are not thinking of how to explain, expand, question, or criticize. The speaker is learning. If you change the dynamic, you change the learning process. Instead of telling students about a concept, create an environment where they can discover the concept on their own. This is the first step in a spiral because the discovery must be elementary. Students can revisit the concept in more depth, later.

How can we use discovery in the law school curriculum? Think about an introductory contracts class. Instead of lecturing on the elements of contracts, ask students to bring in a contract they have recently signed. Ask them to find the consideration in the contract. Then ask them to read cases on consideration. Make sure you  return to the contracts they brought to class; now ask them to define the benefit of the bargain for each party. Students are building knowledge of contracts by using what they know; a contract they have already signed. This also adds relevance to the material.  It allows them to engage with what they are learning, and keeps them engaged in the class. No one likes to be bored in class, and no teacher (that I know) likes to  lecture to blank faces tuned into computer screens. The spiral curriculum can help all of us stay engaged. (RCF)

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