NIKE COMMERCIALS AND GOOD TEACHING: Just Do It!

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By Rory Bahadur from Washburn University School of Law

My recent trip to the Republic Of Georgia with Michael Schwartz catalyzed the precipitation of formerly disjointed thoughts into this tangible comparison of an athletic shoe sales pitch to good teaching. While there, we presented on teaching methods and assessment to the most vibrant, devoted group of young legal academics I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Briefly, these law professors in the emerging former Soviet republic are driven to become excellent teachers preparing their students for the effective practice of law. This despite the fact most of them were paid the equivalent of approximately $300 U.S. dollars per semester for teaching at the law schools. Law school was therefore not their main source of income; they also had demanding and successful law practices in Georgia and internationally.

Yet, for the most part, they voluntarily attended these training sessions, actively participated in workshops, and took significant time away from their bread and butter careers because they were so driven to become better teachers. This is especially remarkable because it was the second time within one year that they sat through a four day, five hour per day presentation on teaching methods.

The reason for their devotion had to do with a strong emerging sense of nationalism, part of which included the idea that the younger generation would not be hindered by what they considered an inferior and insular Soviet education model.

The reviled Soviet model taught doctrine and considered legal education an academic transfer of knowledge which this generation considers ill-suited for the effective practice of law. As part of that effort to reform legal education, a USAID grant facilitated my trip to Georgia.

What I found ironic is the young professors’ unanimous worry that those still employed Soviet-era pure academics would shrug off all the modern approaches to teaching which involve providing assessment, feedback, teaching with tangible outcomes in mind, and applying modern learning theory as a dumbing down of legal education. The familiar refrain from the old guard was that legal education in Georgia was all about teaching lawyers to “think like lawyers.”

Surprisingly this is the same response that typically comes from established U.S. academics when efforts to reform legal education in the United States are considered, even when those efforts are based on studies such as Carnegie and Best Practices which incorporate modern learning theory. Erwin Chemerinsky, a much more respected scholar and academic than I could ever be, recently stated at a conference on law school construction that only law professors get away with the justification that our job is to teach people to think like lawyers rather than to be lawyers, which Carnegie and Best Practices advocate. Chemerinsky jokingly asked the rhetorical question: “How would you feel just as you were going under the anesthetic if your brain surgeon said, ‘Don’t worry they taught me how to think like a doctor in medical school?'”

My initial response to the young Georgians’ concerns was that the old guard was looking for an excuse to not have to do things differently than they had for many years. Class prep for these Soviet era educators involved pulling out 15 year old notes, asking the same questions and discussing doctrine they could discuss in their sleep by now. Total teaching prep time was therefore little more than the actual class time, required very little effort and left time for many other attempts to improve professional status and respect among their peers.

I think the time has come to decide if legal educators are teachers. If we are teachers, then there are many studies and reports that describe what good teaching is. Part of our job as teachers is to make sure that we do not conveniently rely on pedagogical methods suggested in the late 1800s, but rather make the effort to consider modern pedagogical theory and incorporate it into our class room time.

All the modern education studies absolutely mention the need for reality based instruction, the need for feedback, and for multimodal presentation of materials. All of these things require inordinately more prep time and thought about classroom presentation than is currently considered normatively acceptable.

I asked Erwin Chemerinsky how he could realistically expect Professors to incorporate feedback, assessment, and other labor intensive teaching recommendations yet still have time for scholarship. His response, as everything Chemerinsky, was brilliant and brief, “That’s what summers are for.”

I do not have the answer but after Georgia we should at least honestly ask ourselves a question: is U.S. resistance to Carnegie, Best Practices and the ABA outcomes based education model really anything more than hesitance to “just do it,” because just doing it involves a lot more time and effort than we currently devote to class time?

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