More from the AALS Conference on New Ideas for Law School Teachers: Teaching Intentionally

Yesterday morning the conference began with a 45 minute lecture by Prof. Derrick Bell entitled, Creating a Classroom Where Deep Learning Occurs: Participatory Learning. During the course of the talk, Prof. Bell outlined his innovative, student-centered approach to teaching. The “participatory learning” method involves a structure in which students take responsibility for teaching others. A description of this approach is published in the program materials. Under the “participatory learning” method:

Each two and one-half-hour class is structured so that selected student teams brief and argue an actual or hypothetical case to the class sitting as the court. Following the class, students prepare and post on the course web site essays (called op-eds) that offer student perspectives on the law and policy issues. These are available for review and possible response in the class. At the following class, discussion about the op-eds led by those who presented the case in the previous class enables a review of the legal and policy issues that students have wrestled with as they either wrote op-eds or read those prepared by their classmates. Over the course of the semester, each student posts from 10-12 op-eds of from 500-2,000 words. Rather than a final exam, each student receives a graded memo reflecting all aspects of the work done during the semester. Teaching assistants (students who did well in the previous semester) provide guidance to the teams both in preparing their arguments and helping them improve their op-eds . . . .

The method has many attractive features. It forces students to take responsibility for their own learning, converting them from passive receptors of information to active listeners and learners. Under the method, students have to write – a lot, which is always a good thing. Over the years, I’ve reduced rather than increased the number of written assignments in my upper level (non-seminar) courses. This method also involves students from previous classes in the learning process allowing them to both share their expertise with other students, and presumably, to solidify their own hold on legal concepts through their role as teaching assistants. It emphasizes teamwork and peer-to-peer interaction, skills that are increasingly necessary in the legal marketplace. Finally, the method attempts to subvert the power relationship between law professor and law student.

And yet even given all of these advantages, I don’t think that the participatory learning method will never make its way into my teaching repertoire. The reason I doubt I’ll ever use the participatory learning method is because I’m passionately committed to the quasi-Socratic method of teaching that I’ve assiduously worked to perfect for more than 10 years. I’m committed to this method notwithstanding prominent critiques suggesting that it can reify power relationships within the classroom, silence some students and humiliate others, and work against rather than promote learning outcomes for women and people of color.

It’s not that I disagree with these critiques . . . I just believe they can be overcome. I think that, in the right hands, the Socratic (or quasi) Socratic method is incredibly well suited to teaching law. In the right hands, the Socratic method promotes active learning, creates an environment where the sum is greater than its parts, allows for the efficient delivery of information and doctrine and can create an electric feeling in the classroom – that wow moment when through the careful parsing of doctrine that the questioning method allows – the lightblub of true understanding miraculously flicks on.

I can certainly see the benefits of participatory learning, but for me (call me old-fashioned), the quasi Socratic method really works. Am I wrong?

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