Review: Creating the Optimistic Classroom

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By Jeremiah Ho from Washburn University School of Law

Corie Rosen, Creating the Optimistic Classroom: What Law Schools Can Learn From Attribution Style Effects, 42 McGeorge Law Review 319 (2011) [Read fulltext (147 KB PDF)](Reprinted with permission of the publisher, McGeorge Law Review)

At the outset, Corie Rosen’s latest article, “Creating the Optimistic Classroom: What Law Schools Can Learn From Attribution Style Effects,” continues the ongoing examination into the negative psychological impacts that the traditional law school experience can often bring upon our students. However, law student depression and anxiety is a secondary preoccupation of Rosen’s article; her main premise is much more far-reaching than just another diagnostic. Instead, her article deals predominately with overcoming student negativity and depression in law school through teaching our students learned optimism using attribution style effects from positive psychology. The result of reaching towards learned optimism is one thought-provoking method for lessening the negative impact that the law school experience frequently imparts.

As Rosen deftly explains, in law school “where depression, triggered by isolation, extrinsic motivation, and values alienation, is an increasing problem, the psychology of thriving could play an especially important role.” With that in mind, she looks to psychologist Martin Seligman’s work on learned optimism as a way to introduce the cognitive process of optimistic thinking into the law school classroom. Rosen exposes the differences in thinking that characteristically separate pessimistic minds from optimistic ones, and posits that “[o]ptimism is learnable. At least in the context of behavioral therapy, people who naturally gravitate towards a pessimistic explanatory style can be taught to be more optimistic.” This process of learning to think optimistically–particularly, in a form of optimism called “flexible optimism”–is done through attribution style.

Although Rosen is cautious about the limits of optimism, she argues that the law school classrooms should reinforce a system of flexible optimism so that students can learn to call upon optimism when it would be helpful. According to Rosen, opportunities for this learning exist especially when law teachers give feedback and couch the language of optimism into interactions with students. Doing this could produce two results: on the one hand, students might be alerted to deficiencies in their classwork but, on the other hand, they would be able to see such deficiencies only in limited terms. Moreover, they might sense that the instructor’s language, as a whole, encourages them to see their deficiency as an essential step to overcome in order to obtain mastery. Rosen gives examples of how to create feedback using the language of optimism with the struggling law student as the particular recipient. In this way, Rosen’s work in this area of positive psychology certainly produces food for thought.

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