Using a “Ladder of Abstraction” in Learning the Law

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By Barbara Lentz, Wake Forest University and WFU School of Law

Law students say learning in law school is confusing, hard, and non-intuitive. In the traditional law school Socratic learning model, a teacher asks a series of oral questions about a reported decision eliciting verbal answers from a classroom of students in order to form a broader legal rule and explain an abstract concept. This oral questioning (often without the teacher providing feedback on how or why answers were incorrect) usually does not align with students’ prior learning experiences, and students report being mystified by the process.

Students benefit from learning a systematic approach to make thinking visible. By explicitly documenting the process, students are better able to state rules from one or more decisions and gain deeper understanding of the abstract concepts. In my law courses, I explain and employ a written “Ladder of Abstraction” to explicitly record each step in the thinking process and to provide a model students can apply to better understand and communicate abstract concepts by developing the ability to move up and down levels of abstraction.

The Ladder of Abstraction was described by S.I. Hayakawa almost eighty years ago.1 The ladder is both a concrete visual image and a concept used to illustrate how language and meaning evolves from bottom rung concrete terms (casting a vote in the mayoral election) to top rung abstract concepts (democracy). The number of “rungs” corresponds to the number of terms used to move from the concrete to the abstract. Thus, each step of reasoning from concrete to abstract is explicitly recorded, making the internal thinking process visual to students.

For example, in an orientation class with international lawyers beginning their LLM program, I use the ladder of abstraction to demonstrate how a rule from a common law dog bite decision could be stated as an abstract legal principle and applied to determine liability for any injury or event, such as environmental contamination by a corporation’s manufacturing processes. As with any Ladder of Abstraction, the starting point is writing the concrete terms at the bottom of each ladder. In this example, the court finds that the owner of a golden retriever that bites a person without provocation is not liable. I write the bottom-rung concrete terms used in the specific rule at the bottom of the classroom whiteboard in a series of individual ladders. By working through a number of hypotheticals, the very concrete term and image of a particular dog owner becomes animal owner, owner, and eventually the much more abstract potentially responsible party. At each point in our discussion, each term is explicitly identified and written on the corresponding ascending rung of the ladder to illustrate the incremental development of an abstract rule from our concrete starting point.

During our class exercise, I also explain why the ladder is helpful in recording each step of rule development, and how students can apply the process working on their own.
After the shared class exercise, students can individually complete a simple, short ladder to practice applying the model. To encourage transfer of learning, the individual assignment can ask students to list one or more situations where they think the ladder of abstraction will be helpful. The professor might suggest that students include in their answers not only legal education scenarios but also any situation where students need to be able to communicate abstract ideas to a reader or audience.

Once students learn the systematic Ladder of Abstraction approach they are better able not only to form abstract rules, but also to self-assess and to share their thinking process. In the classroom, there is a common visual and shared terminology to check one another’s rule development and to encourage students to think explicitly about levels of abstraction. In my other courses, from second semester Contracts to upper level electives like Nonprofit Organization Law, I employ the Ladder of Abstraction model to help students find meaning by moving up and down the ladder to select the appropriate level of abstraction. In preparing oral presentations or writing documents, I remind students to ground their abstract ideas in concrete examples, and to share their movement between abstract and concrete with the listener or reader to improve communication.

1 See S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (5th ed. 1991).