Friday, February 10, 2012

Wegner on the Second- and Third-Year Curriculum (Wegner 6)

In the last part of her article, Reframing Legal Education’s "Wicked Problems," Professor Wegner discusses problems of the second- and third-year curriculum. She proposes to deal with these problems by renegotiating basic bargains when you reach a dead end.

The advanced curriculum has reached a dead end because "many students’ second- and third-year classroom experiences are relatively dilute or packed with information without necessarily generating marked engagement. Students face few course requirements and have considerable flexibility about what they study and when. . . . Academic and career advising is generally limited, and after the disorienting force of the first year experience, many students are at a loss about what professional path they might wish to pursue. Intensive preparation for class often goes by the wayside and students‘ time and attention often turns to extracurricular activities and part-time work."

Wegner suggests four strategies to overcome these problems: 1) purposeful design on a large scale, 2) rethinking content, 3) rethinking pedagogy, and 4) rebalancing teaching and learning responsibilities.

Wegner thinks that one method of purposeful designis to recreate the institutional mission. She mentions institutions that have already done this including NCCU, which has "required comprehensive examination on first year subjects at the end of the first year, and a number of course requirements in the upper division (including focusing on statutory interpretation)" and Elon, which "has hired a substantial number of faculty members with significant expertise in educational theory and practice, and has endeavored to forge an educational model that focuses on leadership and professionalism." Similarly, "Northwestern has adopted a long-range plan geared to preparing its graduates to function well in corporate settings, following a careful study of what those employing many of its graduates would like to see."

She also argues that there should be significant differences (progression) between the second and third years. Concerning the second year, she writes, "There is therefore a case to be made that the second year of law school should provide students with an opportunity to grapple with their own doubts and questions about how they might fit within the legal profession. If schools have not taken significant steps to help students engage with the apprenticeship of professional identity and values,. they may need to take considered steps to do so during the second year."  She also mentions Washington and Lee’s new third-year program, "which is structured to provide participating students with two five-unit practica courses," "a two-week skills immersion module at the start of each semester," and "a two-hour professionalism course that will run throughout both terms, and engage in various forms of public service including work with student groups or external groups."

Wegner’s second strategy is rethinking content–"what gets taught, by whom, and when." In curriculum discussions, "rarely does the discussion center on what a well-educated lawyer should know." Furthermore while "faculty members and students are drawn to clustering courses by subject area," employers rarely care about concentrated subject matter preparation. Thus, pedagogy and rebalancing the responsibilities of teachers and students become more important.

In discussing rethinking pedagogy, Wegner focuses on "theoretical developments related to student engagement, the role of instructional objectives, and the potential for imagining and embracing new conceptions of course design." Student engagement includes "the level of academic challenge, opportunities for active and collaborative learning, students‘ interaction with faculty members, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment." There also four types of engagement in the classroom: "(a) skills engagement (including attending class and taking good notes to understand the material presented); (b) emotional engagement (including really wanting to learn the material and thinking about it between course sessions); (c) participation/interaction engagement (including volunteering in class, talking with the instructor, working with classmates); and (d) performance engagement (doing well in the class, being confident, having extrinsic motivation)." One of the many problems with engagement is "the surprising gaps in the pedagogy employed by many law professors [in] the failure to recognize that instructional objectives are worth consideration and can make a difference in many ways. Effective instruction generally requires setting goals, developing strategies for achieving those goals, and assessment that measures whether goals have been achieved."

Wegner then examines reconceptions of course design. She notes that "increasingly, law faculty members appreciate the potential of various forms of practice-oriented instruction, including live client clinics, externships, and simulation courses." However, she warns of the theory/practice divide: "One of the banes of legal education has been the false dichotomy between theory and practice." She adds, "It has long been common in academia to look down on practice,. carrying forward the Aristotelian preference for the intellectual life (and associated forms of declarative, written knowledge) to which academics commit themselves." To the contrary, she advocates that "many ‘stand up’ [doctrinal] faculty members in courses outside clinics should be less reticent to take to heart the possibilities evident in clinical, externship and simulation pedagogy, or in the increasing possibilities for new models beyond these." "For example, Professor Deborah Maranville has suggested that the traditional categories are misleading and the focus should instead be directed toward educational goals that seek to generate passion within students, provide context for learning, and teach lawyering skills." Another way to rethink pedagogy is through the problem method, which "requires active participation (not just observation); challenges students to develop legal skills in context rather than relying on knowing legal rules; and facilitates self-directed learning." In addition, "doctrinal faculty members might partner with an adjunct or legal writing professor to provide optional writing or skills-related instruction for an additional credit associated with a substantive course, or might consult with such colleagues to develop an practical skills exercise that would be incorporated into a substantive course with or without designated credit." The possibilities are endless.

Wegner’s last strategy is to rebalance teaching and learning responsibilities.  "Gradually, many college and university educators have begun to appreciate that there are various mental constructs for what happens in the classroom, and that these constructs entail more teacher-centered or more learner-centered ways of seeing the educational enterprise."  Moreover, "learning will occur most effectively if students join forces toward achieving desired learning in the end." Law schools must overcome student alienation to develop more engaged learners. Also, socialization to a professional identity is a significant goal.

There are three ways to try to deal with these problems. "First, schools need to take student advising much more seriously." "Second, students should be helped to visualize and take responsibility for their emerging professional strengths and weaknesses." Finally, "are there other forms of expertise (not just expertise in critical thinking) that should be developed in law school beyond the first year?" This could be dealt with by other forms of assessment. For instance, "students could be given new opportunities to achieve law school honors by opting into the creation of outstanding professional portfolios that document their writing, interviewing, professionalism, problem-solving abilities, ethical commitments, and more."

Summary: I have spent much more time discussing Wegner’s article than I had originally intended, and I have still left out numerous important details. Wegner’s article is worth reading in depth because she incisively recognizes the problems in legal education, and she has suggested creative ways to overcome many of those problems.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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