Sunday, February 24, 2013

Law Schools Need To Improve Teaching

As I mentioned last week, there was a debate on legal education reform on the PrawfsBlawg. In response to one of the posts, I wrote, "I think an important issue is being missed in this debate. To be able to teach, one needs to know how to teach. Most people go into law teaching without ever having taught before, without any training on how to teach, and without thinking about what teaching is. Has anyone here looked at Teaching Law by Design by Michael Hunter Schwartz, Sophie Sparrow, and Gerald Hess (Carolina Academic Press 2009)? Has anyone here attended a conference on law teaching?"

Michael J.Z. Mannheimer wrote in reply, "Your argument proves too much. No one in ANY discipline -- except, of course, education -- has extensive training in teaching and learning. Sure, a newly minted Ph.D. may have a few semesters of teaching under her belt. But that simply gives her a head start on teaching experience; it does not mean she actually knows what she is doing. And, yes, I have been to conferences on teaching, and we have had some of the usual suspects visit our school to give hour-long presentations on learning styles and so forth. And when I go back and talk about it with my wife -- who has a Ph.D. in Education -- she smiles sweetly and tells me how cute it is that we think that we can even approach in a two-day conference or a lunchtime presentation what took her four years of coursework (including her masters) and two years of laboring over a dissertation. Yes, we can go to conferences on teaching and read books about it, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that this provides anything more than a pretty superficial grasp of the art of teaching. And unless we start requiring that university teachers in every field acquire at least a masters in Education, there simply is no other way."

I repeat my original statement: To be able teach, one needs to know how to teach. Law professors are teachers, so they should be improving their teaching every day. It is our responsibility to our students.

First, many law schools have started VAP programs. However, reading the descriptions of these programs, one must conclude that, with the exception of Temple, they are intended to prepare scholars, not teachers. Since teaching is supposed to be as important in the legal academy as scholarship, why aren’t there more programs for preparing teachers?

Second, there are numerous books, articles, and other resources that professors can use to become better teachers. Teaching Law by Design by Michael Hunter Schwartz, Sophie Sparrow, and Gerald Hess is an excellent introduction to law teaching, which incorporates the latest in teaching scholarship. How Learning Works by Susan A. Ambrose is an easily readable introduction to new approaches to teaching and learning in general. As I have mentioned numerous times, the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers Website has course portfolios, descriptions of innovative law school programs, and a list of teaching resources.

Similarly, there are valuable teaching conferences held every year, and there should be more. The Institute for Law Teaching and Learning holds conferences every year. (June 7-9 at Washburn this year.) LWI and ALWD hold frequent conferences that include many presentations on teaching. Finally, since so many law professors question the value of the AALS conference, why not include more teaching sessions on it.

Law schools provide mentors to new professors for scholarship. Why not also provide mentors for teaching? Law schools have many faculty forums on scholarship; why not have faculty forums on teaching? (I realize that some law schools already do this, but not enough law schools do.)

Finally and most importantly, professors need to work on teaching everyday. Planning and reflection are major parts of the new learning in education. Law professors should carefully plan every class. What are my goals for this class? How can I accomplish these goals? What are the best teaching methods for this class? Equally importantly, professors should reflect after every class. Was I an effective teacher today? Did my students understand what I was trying to teach them? Did I use a variety of teaching methods? What teaching methods were particularly effective for the material? How can I improve on how I taught today? In sum, law professors should be slightly better teachers with each class.

(Scott Fruehwald)

P.S. Since I wrote this post for later posting, two bloggers have discussed the need for better law school teacher preparation. (here, here)  Paul Campos declared, "More generally, how is it that law professors are particularly qualified to teach anybody anything? It’s one of the curiosities of the American educational system that, as one ascends in the hierarchy of teaching, one needs less formal training in being a teacher.  Elementary and secondary school teachers are required to study educational theory and to undergo formal apprenticeships.  Most university faculty have no formal training in education per se, but at least they usually acquire practical experience in teaching as graduate students, before they become full-fledged faculty members.  By contrast, it’s not unusual for legal academics to have literally no teaching background of any kind before they are unleashed on their students."

Eric Muller added,

* Once in a faculty position, most law professors receive no training in teaching and are slow to seek out development resources from teaching centers on their campuses.  

* Mentoring efforts for junior faculty are much likelier to focus on scholarship than teaching.

* Most law faculty members (of all levels of seniority) generally receive no more peer feedback on their teaching than they absolutely must.

* The more prestigious the institution, the more teaching is seen as a hindrance to research, the less time people spend in the classroom, the more a reduced teaching load is dangled as a hiring or retention incentive, and the harder faculty members work to find ways of getting release time from teaching.

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