December 07, 2012
Thoughts on Curricular Reform I: The Problem
My law school, like many others, is in the throes of curricular reform. I would like to share with our readership some ruminations on the experience in a series of posts. Very little of what follows is specific to my law school's process. That process is on-going and I cannot write with any specificity about what changes we are planning to adopt, as we have yet to come to firm conclusions.
Less than ten years into teaching, I am already something of a dinosaur. I have previously published a limited defense of the case method and the Socratic method (a lengthier version is still available on SSRN). I still believe that a flexible, soft Socratic approach to teaching can be very effective for contemporary law students, especially if supplemented by mini lectures and problems. However, after eighteen months of work with our curriculum committee, I am persuaded that many within the legal academy are prepared to jettison the Langdellian heritage in favor of more hands-on teaching methods.
Like most academics, and probably like most people, I am confident that my own method for doing what I do is a good one. Unfortunately, there is no reliable empirical evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of my teaching method over others. We have not undertaken a systematic study to determine whose contracts students go on to pass the bar at the highest rates or whose contracts students are most likely to be successful transactional lawyers or commercial litigators. My students respond well to my approach to law teaching (to judge by my student evaluations, which is the best evidence I've got, faulty though it is), and they seem to master the concepts that we cover in my contracts course as well as they ever have (to judge by steady medians on the multiple-choice portions of my exam). But I am willing to entertain the hypothesis that they could do better through other methods, and I believe I have a professional obligation to experiment responsibly to try to discover what works best for today's law students.
My colleagues have shared with me a substantial body of empirical work that suggests that our current students do not study or learn through the same methods that I used when I was a law student. The current generation also arrives at law school less well-prepared in precisely the cognitive areas in which legal studies make the most rigorous demands. I am not entirely persuaded that the science on which these conclusions are based is entirely reliable, but I am willing to set aside my skepticism for the sake of the thought experiment of trying to devise a curriculum that would meet our students where they are.
In future posts, I hope to consider the following subjects:
- The impact of curricular reform on teaching materials: is this the death of casebooks?
- The costs of moving to a more skills-based curriculum
- The balance of teaching and scholarship in the 21st-century law school
- Coordinating teaching strategies with colleagues while preseving academic freedom
- Balancing meeting students where they are, in terms of maturity and development of cognitive abilities, with pushing students so that they can adapt to challenging professional environments
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