Thursday, January 19, 2023

Starting with understanding

Last fall at a conference I heard an idea that really stuck with me, and I’m still thinking about today. I had sort of intuited the idea before, but I had never heard anyone articulate it, and I’m still chewing on it months later: our students have a different relationship with knowledge than we did when we were students.

Those of us who completed our schooling before the ubiquity of smart phones used to have to know stuff. And to know stuff, we learned it was much easier to understand stuff—understand why it works a certain way, make connections to get to the answer, understand why A leads to B and that’s why C—than it was to simply memorize. And this was as true in our personal lives as in our educational pursuits. Remember how conversations about movies went, before IMDB? “What’s the name of that movie? The one with the actor I like? He was in that other movie with that actress, the one who played two versions of herself in that other movie?”* Not the most scholastic of examples, but it demonstrates one small way we practiced the skill of making connections to arrive at the needed information.

In contrast, students today largely have not needed to know information in the same way (that's not to say they don't know things, but that they haven't needed to know in the same way). They can always look it up on the spot, and so it they may not have had the same need to practice making connections and understanding as a means to remember and access necessary information. The entire contents of sets of encyclopedias and more have always been available with only a few thumbstrokes on their phones, so they could always just look it up.

If we believe that students today have a different relationship with knowledge than we did, it is not a long step to believing that they may also have a different relationship with understanding and learning. Before we can help students learn to think like lawyers, we may first need to talk explicitly about the importance of learning for understanding. (This concept as it applies to law school and the bar exam, and some excellent advice for how to implement it, was covered excellently in this blog about a year ago.)

I think we have all heard statements like, “students today don’t know how to think!!” generally, from kind and well-intentioned colleagues. What I think those types of statements intend to express is that learning and thinking are different now than when the speaker was in school. We can’t change the way our students have learned before they got to law school, and the thinking skills they had the opportunities to practice. But starting with the understanding that they may approach knowledge and remembering differently than we learned to can inform how we support our students for success in law school and the bar exam.

*Four Weddings and a Funeral, John Hannah, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sliding Doors.


(Lisa DeLaTorre)

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