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Thursday, July 05, 2018

Socio-Emotional Learning in Law School

Hello, Everyone! Happy to be back on Prawfs and blogging this month. I plan to talk about the Trump/Sessions criminal justice policy, the Golden State Killer case, new and unresolved issues in California corrections, the Manson Family's parole hearings (which is the topic of my upcoming book Yesterday's Monsters with UC Press), animal rights and personhood, and various other issues. But I'll start with pedagogy.

Last year I was delighted to attend the Greater Good Science Center's Summer Institute for Educators. It was a fantastic experience that dramatically impacted my pedagogy in the subsequent year and bore amazing fruit.

The Institute is open to all educators, k-12 to university level. I was not surprised, but somewhat disappointed, to find that I was the only law school professor in attendance (I hope this will change!). The premise of the Institute is to open faculty at all levels to the many ways in which we can introduce socio-emotional skills into our classrooms, in a way that enhances our students' mindfulness, gratitude, overall happiness, compassion, empathy, and other qualities that improve their lives beyond the material. Law schools have made big strides in that respect--Ronda Magee's work is just one example--and my own school has a meditation group. But the Institute inspired me to extend the reach of beneficial, healing methods and themes into every class I teach. Here's Prof. Magee explaining more about how this could apply directly to our law school experience:

This is of great interest to me, because I teach criminal justice topics that are highly politicized and have high emotional valance. I want my students to feel comfortable enough to discuss these topics with their classmates and to profoundly explore their opinions, and even disagreement, in a constructive, compassionate environment. The general climate of my classes, as of the Bay Area in general, is that my students tend to be politically progressive, and there's quite a bit of self-policing that goes on into discussing issues of race, class, and disability, in the context of policing and constitutional rights.

The Summer Institute faculty are researchers in their own right, many of them psychologists, and the research to which they exposed us convinced me that creating an environment where thoughtfulness, empathy, and self-care (and care of others) was at the forefront would improve the outcomes of class. It was a truly transformative week, in which we talked not only about our values and ideals, but also about actual techniques to apply in the classroom. It was helpful that the organizers grouped us into "families" based on the educational environment we worked in--I was in a group with university professors--and thus we came up with ideas on how to run a better classroom for everyone.

I ended up applying many of these insights in both my large (about 80-90 students) Criminal Procedure class, as well as in a small seminar, Environmental Criminology, which I co-taught with a like-minded friend, David Takacs. The seminar enabled us to really get to know our students, who were bright and curious, and to allow them to take charge of their own education and that of their classmates. 

The first thing we did was start our class with something awe-inspiring (awe has been linked to greater interest in the material and better educational outcomes.) We shared with the class a beautiful essay about the solar eclipse. Subsequently, at the beginning of every week, we started class with a poem related to the class, to give everyone a moment to ground and center before starting our discussions.

Naturally, we needed to convey knowledge, and there was a reading list, but we went about discussing the readings in nontraditional ways. Specifically, we emphasized collaborative group work and roleplaying. For example, when discussing an article about the economics of caviar smuggling in Europe, we split our seminar class into three groups: poor fishermen in the Caspian Sea, smugglers with a boat, and German executives responsible for high-end caviar sales. Each group was required to talk about their circumstances and incentives and to inquire whether legal prohibitions on smuggling would alter their behavior (and how.) The group work required our students not only to step into the shoes of people whose life conditions were very different from their own, but also to collaborate with each other. The success of this exercise led us to trust them with more and more student-led work, such as drafting their own climate change laws (and coming up with legislative priorities on climate change.)

One conversation I was particularly impressed with involved environmental ethics. The students discussed, in pairs, their orientation in terms of environmental values: anthropocentric, biocentric, and ecocentric. Not everyone was in agreement--in fact, there was wide diversity in terms of perspective--but the conversations were so rich and deep that we were widely impressed.

Early on, we decided that we would relinquish our control over the discussion to the students. We used a rubber toy, which the students tossed to each other as a squishy "talking stick" throughout class. Of course, since we knew more about the subject than they did, they tossed the ball back to us when questions about the material came up; but once we gave up our authority to run the discussion we were pleasantly surprised at how well the students stayed on topic, challenged each other to think, and graciously gave and received control. This method of running the classroom also led to a more-or-less even social footprint in the classroom, so that the discussion was not just dominated by a vocal few aiming to impress us. 

At seminar presentations, we did not intervene, introduce the speakers, or run the discussion. We gave time limits and distributed notepads to all participants, inviting them to write down feedback for each other after each presentation. We were blown away by the high quality of the conversation and the constructive offers they made to each other about improving their papers.

The outcome of this method was astounding. The seminar papers the students wrote were the best papers, bar none, that either of us had seen in any class we taught before. Six of the papers were published in various law reviews, one was a runner-up for a prestigious award, and the students reached out to policymakers on their own initiative to offer suggestions. Also importantly, the students became fast friends with each other. On the last class we distributed greeting cards and invited them to write each other a good-luck-on-finals and thank-you for the seminar note. They took their time doing it and wrote lengthy, thoughtful, and kind missives to each other. We have since learned that they remained on very warm and friendly terms with each other after the seminar was over.

Implementing this method was a bit more challenging in my large Criminal Procedure class, but there, too, I found that it paid off to invest in the social and emotional climate of the class. I introduced the talking stick method and found, to my surprise, that it works in a large class almost as well as in the small one! The students could interact with each other on an interpersonal basis even in the large lecture hall, and comfortably assumed control of the discussion as well as returned their attention to me when I needed to chime in. Moreover, our work on empathy paid great dividends. Teaching policing in an environment of a complete disintegration of trust between police departments and the communities they serve can be very difficult. But we found that we can see even very contentious topics from both perspectives, and moreover, understand that neither the police nor the community are a monolith. It was a supportive environment that enabled both my students who had law enforcement background and my students who had criminal records or criminal victimization experience to interact feeling that they would not be judged or retaliated against.

People warned me against doing the notecard exercise in the big class, arguing that cynical or mean students could use them to bully each other. But I prefaced the exercise by inviting them to write the kind of notecard they would like to receive. I personally handwrote good-luck cards to all of them, and included each of my cards in the same envelope as the card from a fellow student. The feedback was incredibly positive and people came into the exam feeling that, rather than competing against their classmates (an inevitable aspect of the curve) they were buoyed by their fellow students.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to introduce these methods to my pedagogy, and plan to do even more of that in the coming year. This might read as very touchy-feely to some folks, but there are ways to exhibit care for our students' wellbeing that would fit with nearly everyone's personal style. What do you do in the classroom to enhance your students' social and emotional experience?

Posted by Hadar Aviram on July 5, 2018 at 03:32 PM | Permalink


Thank you for your post. I attended the same training two years ago and it dramatically affected how I "ran" my criminal procedure class. The class often worked in groups with a talking stick answering questions within their groups on the cases we were studying. It sounds like you took the information to a whole new level however. I am very intrigued by your reports that your students' seminar papers improved.

Posted by: Shawn Boyne | Jul 9, 2018 11:29:55 AM

Such a great and inspiring post in so many ways. Here are two ideas:

For one of the first classes, I give people a video to watch and ask for comments. (E.g., in my negotiation class, it might be a click from a negotiation; in my mindfulness class, the short clip whodunnit; in my class on mindfulness and lie detection, a clip of a witness being interviewed; in civil procedure, a clip of a lawyer "counseling" a client on testifying in Anatomy of Murder). I tell the students that they will get their choice of "treats" in the order in which they volunteer: some chocolate, some nuts, some vegan jerky, movie passes, etc. Research shows simply giving people chocolate - even doctors at Columbia - makes them faster and more accurate. But I go a step further to ask why people asked for different treats. The students come to realize that what motivates one person, chocolate, might turn someone else off. In advocacy, the key is to see that an argument one judge or juror or arbitrator might like, such as an appeal to the words of a agreement in a pre-nup, might turn off someone else who focuses on fairness. So, too, in negotiation, as many law professors know, many deans will match the salary of another law school, and others will regard this as irrelevant.

Posted by: clark freshman | Jul 6, 2018 1:21:50 PM

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