Thursday, May 23, 2013

Should law schools be teaching conceptual thinking skills?

That's what Professor Paula Franzese (Seton Hall) argues in this article posted on SSRN.  Here's the abstract:

We are teaching in challenging times. In response to the economic downturn, fickle client demands and an increasingly global landscape, the practice of law continues to undergo rather seismic shifts. Moreover, the smaller numbers of students who are choosing law school are primarily members of “Generation C” – a group with learning preferences, strengths and weaknesses unlike those of their professors.

Against the backdrop of an irrevocably changed legal landscape and law school constituency, our students’ success and relevance will depend on their capacity to wield the traditionally honed “textual” skills as well as the equally important, but underemphasized, “conceptual” skills. The former are the hallmark of traditional law school pedagogy, which prizes the linear, logical and analytical. Those attributes are the products of the brain’s “left hemisphere” functions, and are most certainly essential.

Still, it behooves us to give the so-called “right hemisphere” abilities, or more conceptual processes, their due. Conceptual thinking is “out of the box” and integrative. It relies on big picture synergies and interconnectivities. It is the circle (and circles within circles) rather than the straight line (and parallel lines). It depends on the more intuitive, empathic, nonlinear and holistic. Cognitive and social scientists theorize that we are in the midst of a paradigmatic shift away from the more linear “information age” to the more innovative “conceptual age,” where “the future belongs to those with a right-side mindset – creators, artists, empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.” (Daniel H. Pink, A WHOLE NEW MIND (2005)).

This paper explores the dimensions and implications of conceptual thinking for law school pedagogy. It suggests ways to teach to the whole mind by enhancing access to right-brain neural pathways. Specifically, it will focus on classroom use of what is described as empathy, story, symphony and meaning to facilitate students’ capacity to discern patterns and the essential interconnectedness among seemingly separate and distinct legal and theoretical constructs.

Integrative or conceptual thinking depends on the abilities to empathize and to discern the subtleties of the struggles that summon the adjudicative function. In the classroom, one way to access empathic pathways is through the use of story to teach cases and to present them with emotional impact. The human brain’s “mirror neurons” respond to narrative imagining to quite literally get a feel for the problem at hand and then more expansively explore viable solutions. Symphony is the ability to discern broad patterns as story after story is told, and to thereby perceive connections and engage in both invention and re-invention by linking together seemingly disparate elements. Teaching with meaning aims to deliberately infuse each class with strands of the ethical and moral imperatives that inform justice, and that build just lawyers

Hat tip to the Wall Street Journal Law Blog.


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