Monday, October 8, 2018

Japanese Math Teachers Could Be a Model for Improving Legal Education

Sputnik changed teaching forever.  Falling behind the Soviet Union in the race to space caused people throughout the US to evaluate how we were teaching science and math.  Numerous theories ignited thought, and many individuals wanted the US to be the world leader in technology.  Unfortunately, we never fully realized our potential.  The US continually lags behind on the international math exams, and we are at fault.

Japan is widely seen as the technology innovator.  They continually score higher than all the other counties on the international math exam.  They use a unique form of teaching focusing on one problem, but the hardest aspect to swallow is Japan’s success is primarily built on the US theories developed after Sputnik.  The US failed to deploy the new theories throughout the country.  Japan capitalized on Americans’ work to produce a technologically advanced society.  Sputnik changed teaching, but unfortunately, the changes happened in Japan.  Now, we need to look to them to train our teachers.

Elizabeth Green describes the American failure and Japanese success in an article in the New York Times Magazine.  The Japanese practice of jugyokenkyu, translated lesson study, could help law schools improve.  Jugyokenkyu is when “[a] teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. Each public lesson poses a hypothesis, a new idea about how to help children learn. And each discussion offers a chance to determine whether it worked.”  Jugyokenkyu approaches teaching as a collaborative effort with feedback.

Obviously, law schools don’t need specifics for teaching math.  However, numerous reports, recommendations, and standards haven’t changed legal education.  Maybe it is time for law schools to embrace jugyokenkyu.

The foundation for jugyokenkyu is deliberate preparation with goals; performance for students and colleagues; and feedback from experts.  In ASP, we know that process works.  We tell students to take practice exams, seek feedback, and make changes for the next exam.  In LRW, professors tell students to put down papers for a few days because individuals tend to read over errors in his/her own work.  If those are true for our students, then those statements are true for us.  We need feedback from someone who understands teaching law students to know whether our methods are working.  We will miss our own mistakes just like reading over an error in a brief.  We need deliberate practice with feedback as much as students.

The amazing transformation of Japanese math teaching is the anomaly, but we should attempt to follow that trend in legal education.  Theories, ideas, and published articles didn’t change America after Sputnik, so continuing that failed practice won’t change legal education.  I know I am saying this in a blog.  However, let’s consider how we can take steps to make lasting improvements to help our students.

My first suggestion is work within our own law schools.  Find a group of individual professors who are determined to help students learn better.  Start small with each person in the group deliberately planning a lesson.  The rest of the group observes the lesson, or someone can record the class for observation.  Everyone should then meet and talk about the lesson.  If each person in the group does that twice during a semester, the evaluation and critiques would help everyone. 

My next suggestion is to work with ASPers at other schools.  I know the quickest response to the last suggestion is “no one at my school would do that.”  While I believe there are at least a couple professors who want to improve teaching at every school, inter-school feedback can work.  We could create a TWEN page or page on the AASE site where we post videos of our teaching.  Others within the community could then watch and provide feedback.

ASPers posting lectures would provide an additional benefit for the annual conference.  We could see others’ lectures we hear about at AASE.  Some of the presentations always talk about how he/she teaches students a particular concept.  If that lecture was already posted, we could watch the lecture prior to the presentation and have a deeper discussion of teaching.  We could also have round table feedback sessions on teaching from lectures posted.  As we change our area, we could talk about it in our law schools to get other professors on board.  We can spread jugyokenkyu throughout law schools.

We continually hear that legal education needs to change.  Similar to k-12 education, entities demand we use better practices.  Demands generally don’t lead to widespread change.  Feedback from experts, who are our colleagues, is how Japan became the best country for math in the world.  We should try a model that works instead of continually following the same failed practice.

(Steven Foster)

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