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Friday, March 30, 2018

Legal Ed's Futures: No. 41 (guest post, Ian Holloway)

“But you don’t understand. They’re completely different.” That was the snorted response I received a few years ago from a lawyer when I suggested that as a profession, there were things we could usefully learn from accountants.

I’ve had exchanges like that several times over the years. But I was reminded of them when reading Hari Osofsky’s Post no 24 in this series (“Moving Forward Together”). In my time as a dean of law, my list of eureka moments is far, far shorter than the “Yikes! We shouldn’t do that again” ones. But without question, a bathtub moment occurred a four years ago, when I arranged for the associate dean of our medical school to take part in the work of our curriculum review committee.

On a scale of one to 10 in terms of revelation, it ranked a solid 12. For what my colleagues and I learned from him was that in medical school today, very little actual classroom work takes place, at least beyond the basic sciences taught at the beginning. Rather, almost all medical education takes place through what the docs call problem-based learning.

What will happen — and here at the University of Calgary’s med school it begins in Week 1 — is that an actor will present to a group of students with, say, yellowish-looking skin. The students are meant to ask questions, and then go away and do some research. They meet the “patient” again, and ask more questions. More research follows, followed by recommendations regarding treatment. That is the process by which they learn about the liver and liver-based diseases like jaundice.

This problem-based learning model is now the norm in North American medical schools. The fact our med students no longer have structured lectures on the four chambers of the heart or the endocrine system or infections of the sigmoid colon seems not to have done violence to the cause of medical education. On the contrary, many specialists today will say that the juniors arrive at the hospitals much better prepared for the rigors of hospital life than in their day.

After our colleague from the School of Medicine spoke, we reacted in the traditional instinctive lawyerish way: “Well, this is interesting, but the law is different.”

But the associate dean had a remarkable forensic persistence: “Why?” he kept asking. What was it about our learning objectives that are so different from the learning objectives in other learned professions?

Yes, we want to inculcate theory, but does anyone think that our doctors don’t have to have a theoretical understanding of their work? And, like the doctors, don’t we prefer our graduates being able to actually have at least some grounding in skill? If not, how are we different from a graduate philosophy program?

And, by the way, do we actually know much about how much our students retain from what we think we are teaching them?

For all of us on the committee, this really was a eureka moment. After that, we went out of our way to connect with others. Or course, this included members of the profession (who could not have been more helpful), but it also included an expert in learning theory, who was able to tell us more about how adults learn. (Spoiler alert — it’s way different than it was understood in the late 19th century when the Langdellian model of legal education was developed.)

And when it came to things such as leadership, entrepreneurship, business skills and project management (all things we offer at Calgary alongside Jurisprudence and Feminist Legal Theory, by the way), we reached out — to arms that we found extremely welcoming — to our colleagues from the business school, who’ve been teaching these things for years.

In our case, I have no doubt our ultimate reforms were far stronger than they would have been had we not tried to learn from the experience of others. Yes, law as a substantive profession is different from medicine, accountancy, or engineering. So, of course, our courses are different from theirs. But does it have to follow that the experience of our sister professions doesn’t hold directly applicable lessons for us? Not a chance.

Hari concluded her piece by saying, “collaboration is not just a positive way of interacting, but a practical strategic tool.  The more we can work together, learn from each other, and take steps forward informed by varying perspectives, the better we will serve our students and society.” She couldn’t have been more spot-on. The common law is a system grounded in the experience of the ages. The premise of the precedent system is that the wheel need not be reinvented with each new case. Why shouldn’t that apply to our pedagogical lives as well?

Ian Holloway (Canada, U. Calgary)

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on March 30, 2018 at 12:34 PM | Permalink


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