Thursday, June 9, 2011

Quick — does this look familiar?

Stare decisis — the doctrine of precedent — implies the need to develop pattern-recognition skills in order to assess the similarities and differences between (on one hand) a present problem or situation and (on the other hand) the problems or situations found in decided cases. Although not typically cast as an extended exercise in developing pattern-recognition skills, much of legal education amounts to just that. This process, however, often seems slow, and some students likely never quite grasp the point or the skill. The issue of different learning styles — aural or visual, textual or pictorial/graphical — complicates the quest.

A recent article in The New York Times highlights efforts in the physical sciences to improve high-school students’ pattern-recognition skills and to inculcate the skills to the point that the students acquire “something at least as valuable [to true experts] as a mastery of the rules: gut instinct, an instantaneous grasp of the type of problem they’re up against. Like the ballplayer who can ‘read’ pitches early, or the chess master who ‘sees’ the best move, they’ve developed a great eye.” The reporter notes that “[g]ood teachers at all levels already have their own techniques to speed up this process — multiplication flash cards, tips to break down word problems, heuristic rhymes — but scientists are working to tune students’ eyes more systematically and to build understanding of very abstract concepts.”

Perhaps the mathematical rigor of the hard sciences makes this kind of concentrated training in some ways easier to implement in those domains than in, say, legal education. But considering the importance to good lawyering of suitably assessing the similarities and differences between the present and the past, of recognizing patterns and extrapolating from them, of acquiring lawyerly intuitions and instincts, the utility of similarly intense exercises in pattern recognition for would-be lawyers seems both evident and to present an opportunity for an enterprising legal-skills educator to create pathbreaking training.

Benedict Carey, Brain Calisthenics for Abstract Ideas,” N.Y. Times, June 7, 2011, p. D1 (national ed.).


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