Friday, July 29, 2022
Millions of law school graduates around the US just took the bar exam. Others are preparing to enter colleges and graduates schools in a few weeks. How will these respective groups do? While a lot depends on how much and how well they study, a large part of their success or failure may depend on how they've been taught. I recently posted about how adults learn and what the research says we should do differently. In this post, I'll show how I used some of the best practices in the last ten days when I taught forty foreign lawyers from around the world and thirty college students in separate summer courses offered by the University of Miami as well as nine Latin American lawyers who were taking courses in business law from a Panamanian school. I taught these disparate groups about ESG, disclosures, and human rights. With each of the cohorts, I conducted a simulation where I divided them into groups to prioritize issues based on whether they were a CEO, an investor, a consumer, the head of an NGO, and for the US college students, I added the roles of a member of Congress or influencer. In a future post, I will discuss how the groups prioritized the issues based on their demographics. Fascinating stuff.
Depending on what you read, there are six key principles related to adult learning:
1. It seems obvious, but adults need to know why they should learn something. Children learn because they are primed to listen to authority figures. Too often in law school or corporate training, there's no correlation to what they learn and what they actually do. When I taught the two groups of foreign lawyers, I talked about the reality and the hype about ESG and how the topic could arise in their practices with specific examples. When I spoke to the college students who were considering law school, I focused on their roles and responsibilities as current consumers and as the future investors, legislators, and heads of NGOs. Same powerpoint but different emphasis.
2. Adults are self-directed. Under one definition, "self-directed learning describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes." This may seem radical because many of my colleagues complain that today's students need a lot of hand holding and spoon feeding, and I agree to some extent. But I also think that we don't give students enough credit and we underestimate them. I developed my curriculum for the practicing lawyers but I also asked what they wanted to learn and what would be most useful for them. I only had a few hours with them, so I wasn't able to explore this much as I would have. But in some of my traditional courses at the law school and when I train adults in other contexts, I often give a choice of the exam type and topic. This ensures that they will submit a work product that they are passionate about. At the end of my traditional classes at the law school, I also ask them to evaluate themselves and me based on the learning outcomes I established at the beginning of the semester. They tend to be brutally honest about whether they've taken responsibility for their own learning.
3. Adults filter what we tell them through their life experiences. In my traditional classes, I send out a survey to every student before the semester starts so that I understand their backgrounds, perspectives, and what's important to them. I often pick hypotheticals in class that directly address what I've learned about them through the surveys so it resonates much more clearly for them. With my three groups this week, I didn't have the chance to survey them but I knew where they were all from and used examples from their countries of origin, when I could. When the college students entered the Zoom room, I asked them to tell me why they picked this class. This helped me understand their perspectives. I also picked up on some of their comments during discussion and used those data points to pivot quickly when needed. It would have been easy to focus on my prepared lecture. But what does ESG mean to a lawyer in Bolivia, when that's not a priority? College students quickly grasped the context of socially responsible investing, so I spent more time there than on the Equator Principles, for example. The cultural and generational differences were particularly relevant when talking about the responsibility of tech companies from a human rights perspective. The lawyers and students from authoritarian regimes looked at social media and the power to influence the masses in one way, while the college students saw the issues differently, and focused more on the mental health issues affecting their peers. Stay tuned for a future post on this, including interesting discussion on whether Congress should repeal Section 230.
4. Adults become ready to learn only when they see how what they are learning applies to what they need to do at work and at home. With the foreign lawyers, I focused on how their clients could have to participate in due diligence or disclosure as part of a request from a company higher up in the supply chain. I focused on reputational issues with the lawyers who worked at larger companies. College students don't deal with supply chains on a regular basis so I spent more time focusing on their role as consumers and their participation in boycotts at their universities and their activism on campus and how that does or does not affect what companies do.
5. Adults need a task-centered or problem-focused approach to learning. I had to lecture to impart the information, but with each group, they learned by doing. I had 12 hours with the Latin American lawyers so to test them on their understanding of US business entities, instead of having them complete a multiple choice quiz, I asked them to interview me as a prospective client and develop a memo to me related providing the advice, which is what they would do in practice. They, with the other groups, also prioritized the issues discussed above from their assigned roles as CEO, NGO head, institutional investor, or consumer. When I teach my compliance course to law students, they draft policies, hold simulated board meetings, and present (fake) CLEs or trainings. My business and human rights students have the option to draft national action plans, write case studies on companies that they love or hate, or write develop recommendations for governments for their home country. Students are much more likely to engage with the material and remember it when they feel like they are solving a real problem rather than a hypothetical.
6. Adults need extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. Everyone I taught this week will get some sort of certificate of completion. But they all chose to take these courses and those who weren't part of the UM program either self paid or were reimbursed by their employers. None of them were required to attend the classes, unlike those in elementary and high school. When students choose a course of study and learn something relevant, that's even more important than the certificate or diploma.
I hope this helps some of you getting ready for the upcoming semester. Enjoy what's left of the summer, and if you try any of these suggestions or have some of your own, please leave a comment.