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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hiding the Ball -- In a Different Sense

During my first class of the semester yesterday I had a recurrence of a feeling that prompted me to post something here on Prawfsblawg a couple of stints ago.  I'm too lazy to find it in the archives, so I'll rephrase it here -- and anyway, I suspect my experience was at least slightly different this time around so a different expression of the idea probably makes sense.

So what do we do when we teach?  What I mean is, do we seek to impart everything we know, or only the partial story, on the theory that our students aren't ready for the fuller understanding of the material  thatwe might have -- and, importantly, that we might be holding back.  This came up for me as I was teaching the state action doctrine yesterday.  I took the material farther than what the obvious, first-blush reading of the case might suggest to a student.  But at some point I stopped, thought about it for (literally) a second, and decided not to add a couple of more complexities.  I'm sure we all do this.

This strikes me not only as perfectly reasonable, but pedagogically necessary.  No third-grade teacher would assign one of Gordon Wood's books to an American history class, and the analogy, while purposely extreme, seems to hold, at least when dealing with students taking an introductory class in a law school.  But our students are adults, and I still wonder what we owe themn when we hold information back.  Pretend that what we're telling them is everything?  Give a quick disclaimer to the effect that there's a lot more to it what they're getting, but this is all they need for now?  Or a general disclaimer at the start of the semester?  Hint that there's something more, and even explain the something more, even if that something more potentially undermines their hard-won partial understanding?  Suggest further reading for those interested?

I suppose the reason I think about this is because we force our students to puzzle through the problems the cases present, yet we rig the process if we tell them they've arrived before they get to whatever level we've gotten to.  It seems to me that insisting that the students struggle through the information requires more in the way of disclosure about what we're not pointing them toward than simply lecturing to them but explaining that we're not giving them the full, complex story, whether because of time or other constraints.  Yes, you've figured it out, we tell them after a long slog through a case.  But they really haven't.

Ultimately, this is probably more of an issue for the professor than for the student.  By hypothesis, the students are working at capacity just to get to their fairly basic level of understanding, so for them the dynamic of the class is that they learn as much as they can, leave the rest, and hope that what they've learned is enough for whatever learning goal they have set for themselves.  But it would seem to me that truly effective teaching requires a consciousness of this issue on the part of the teacher, and a plan for dealing with it.

Posted by Bill Araiza on August 21, 2007 at 09:45 PM | Permalink


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The "we're not telling them absolutely everything about the subject" issues comes up not just in teaching individual cases, but also in designing the syllabus, when we choose which topics to include and which to omit.

I used to agonize about this in labor law, the subject I knew best when I started teaching. But then I realized that my image of a graduate three years into a labor law job getting a case on a doctrine I didn't cover shaking her fist and screaming at the sky, "damn you, Slater, for not teaching this to me!" was probably not realistic.

I think it's the same thing for not getting into every nuance or exception to the exception to the main rule. It's a teacher's call how far you want to go with any particular doctrine, and if you get asked a specific question that implicates the exception to the exception, you should answer it.

But in both cases there are trade-offs. It's not that the students aren't smart enough to understand exceptions to exceptions. It's just that if you do much of that, they may lose sight of the forest for tiny twigs on branches of trees, and you will not have time to cover as many total main doctrines.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Aug 22, 2007 9:51:08 AM

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