Review: Tired of Talking: A Call for Clear Strategies for Legal Education Reform

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By Rory Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

Sara Rankin, Tired of Talking: A Call for Clear Strategies for Legal Education Reform: Moving Beyond the Discussion of Good Ideas to the Real Transformation of Law Schools, 10 Seattle Journal for Social Justice 11 (2011) [Read fulltext at Seattle Journal for Social Justice website ]

This thought-provoking article suggests that attempts to reform legal education are ineffective because the magnitude of the inertia perpetuating the normative face of the current legal educational model is severely under estimated. Additionally, current proponents of reform have not developed a strategic plan to reform but rather approach reform hoping that substantive support for reform is self-executing.

Initially the author points out that it is myopic to view legal education reform as merely a change in content. Rather legal education reform, like any other reform, should be viewed as a subversion of established power or a revolution, and she states, “no revolution no matter how valid and compelling its basis can succeed without a tactical plan.”

Next she suggests we analyze the reason for failure of the progressive education movement because many of the techniques and instructional theories touted by contemporary legal education reform (or CLEAR as the author calls it) have their genesis in this movement. The author lists nine theories which the progressive education movement and CLEAR have in common, and while a description of each is beyond the scope of this article it is worth mentioning what they are to illustrate the core of CLEAR: experiential learning, active learning, situated learning, differentiation, service learning, transformative education, collaborative learning and interdisciplinary teaching.

In order for CLEAR to avoid a fate similar to previously unsuccessful educational reforms, Rankin suggests that metacognition strategies must be implemented to transform the substantive strategies above into a coherent reform movement. The three most important steps she suggests reformers focus on are: initially, consider whether reform efforts can form the basis of a feasible movement; next determine the language or terminology that best defines the reform; and, finally articulate an action plan to effectuate the reform.

In order to effectively begin the metacognitive process mentioned above, the author suggests CLEAR advocates need to engage in some rigorous self-assessment, which involves answering the following eight questions:

  1. How much do I and my colleagues really understand about current efforts to reform legal education?
  2. What do I/we know about the arguments for reforming legal education?
  3. What are the bases for these argument?
  4. What specific terms of reform have been or should be embraced by my institution?
  5. Do my colleagues and my administration share a common understanding of these terms? If not, what institutional support exists to facilitate a common understanding?
  6. Is my administration committed to providing ongoing training or education to support innovation?
  7. What specific pedagogical and curricular modifications can I/we make to reflect contemporary knowledge about teaching and learning?
  8. How will I/we measure progress in meeting these reform objectives?

The author suggests that one of the impediments to converting the substantive strategies into a coherent and effective movement or revolution is that most CLEAR advocates after reflecting on these questions could not facilitate a substantive discussion about the transformation of legal education. This coherence and understanding of what CLEAR reformers are actually advocating is the first step on the way to an effective movement. Similarly the author cautions, in a way that is all too reluctantly familiar to many proponents of CLEAR,

Reform rhetoric is distinct from substantive discussion about reform. Substantive discussion is based on data, information, and education; it involves collective and sustained effort; it develops commonly understood goals and strategies; it offers meaningful guidance on implementation and practice; and it provides ongoing assessment and support. Ultimately, substantive discussion spurs action.
Of course, substantive discussion is far more difficult than rhetoric. That is why so many of us opt for rhetoric, settling for “the quick fix and … ad hoc, small-scale, piecemeal innovations.” In the context of education reform, this posture is not a compromise; it is a total surrender. If we continue to pay “more lip service than mind service” to the transformation of legal education, we cannot expect real change.

The article concludes by reiterating the magnitude of the task associated with CLEAR and providing a tangible way to achieve the reforms.

We cannot arm ourselves simply by writing more articles or attending more conferences. We must become more metacognitive about the process of reform. We must organize, define concrete terms, articulate clear strategies, develop and implement plans to validate the impact of these strategies, lobby at the highest levels, and continue to build our constituency until we prevail. The transformation of legal education is an epic battle. We must be prepared to fight–or to lose.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning