"So what's the point?" : Practical language in pratical teaching in the law school

Sara Ross is entering the third year of her PhD at Osgoode Hall Law School, where she has served as an Instructor for the Legal Process class over the past two years. She is also a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, holding an LLB and BCL from McGill, as well as an LLM from the University of Ottawa, and is the Graduate Student Representative for the Canadian Association of Law Teachers Board of Directors.

This post was derived from an inter-faculty workshop given at the York University Teaching and Learning Conference: “Teaching In Focus”, on May 20, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario.

A frequent complaint heard among law students after graduating from law school is that they have been inundated with information, without feeling that they have been taught the actual skills they need to be a lawyer. In my own classroom this year I have focused on using language that links everything I teach to how the student will use it in a practical context, such as a law firm, the courtroom, and so on. Couching everything within this context allows students to not only build their understanding of legal concepts; it provides them with a way of better connecting this knowledge to a professional skill set. This is what I call the “So, what’s the point?” approach.

You might also frame this “So, what’s the point?” approach as “point-first learning” or “point-first teaching”. As lawyers and within the law school context, our distinct focus on writing, arguing, and, in general, presenting our legal arguments in a point-first manner—leading with the ultimate point that we wish to get across to, for example, a judge or a decision-making panel—is something that can take time to instill in new law students. To aid in this transition, it can be intuitive to teach law in this manner too, and helpful to carry this approach into how we structure a law student’s learning environment and classroom experience. This method of instruction can reinforce what point-first argumentation and writing looks like, but there are benefits beyond this.

Teaching through a “So, what’s the point?” approach also speaks to and draws on an experiential education focus. As law schools are seeking to transform many of their courses into experiential opportunities—legal clinics, and so on—the desire and need to respond to and incorporate the practical element of learning and education is apparent. Encapsulated within this is the need to develop the practical skills needed within the legal employment path a student will eventually choose. And thinking about the skills or concepts you’re teaching in a “So, what’s the point?” manner helps bring an experiential element into the classroom; highlighting the real-world application of what the student is learning.

As for deploying this approach, in terms of the overall class, ask yourself, why does this class matter? You probably know the answer, but the students are likely asking that same question and may not be arriving at the same answer as you. Answering that simple question for students early on can put both teachers and students from a vast array of interdisciplinary backgrounds on the same page and align the focus of the different actors in the classroom environment. While this clear communication of the point of the class and the skills to be developed is certainly important to communicate on the first day, it’s also essential to come back to it regularly throughout the semester so that the primary objective of the class isn’t lost in the fray of increased stress and information as the year progress.

In using this philosophy myself, for example, I like to draw out how I have found the material I’m teaching to students has helped me and been important in my own life as a law review editor, legal scholar, in drafting contracts and arbitral submissions, as a law clerk at the Federal Court, and so on. In this way I am directly communicating the importance of what each bit of what I am teaching carries in the professional world (which can be especially beneficial for tasks students may view as unimportant minutiae). Students respond well to this because it fits into what they perceive as their next logical life steps, or as their career goals; this makes the course more relevant and more applicable to their developing legal mindset. Students can see how you have done some of the things they seek to do, and how the material helped you in your experiences. The approach also helps me to engage with students on their learning journey, rather than acting as a gatekeeper to a body of knowledge revealed to them slowly over time.

During my presentation of this idea at the Teaching In Focus conference to teachers from a wide range of faculties and departments, I spent some time talking about how this approach can be applied in any field. After the presentation, several individuals approached to remark how it could be of particular use in the Humanities or Social Sciences. This is certainly true and had been one of my intents in speaking across disciplinary boundaries at the conference. 

For example, during a degree in French or Spanish language and literature (the focus of my first university degree), the tasks practiced and information learned could help a future marketing manager learn how to tell a story through company ads. Or, consider a university course in symbolic logic. Here you learn how to construct a good argument; all of those symbols may not seem related to real life, but any good argument has to have all the elements of logic—especially the argument you might, for instance, present to your boss in asking for a raise.

For me, this is not about providing students with a list of future career opportunities, but instead the approach is about showing how the pieces of knowledge and skills being taught can translate into tools for the student down the road when they’re out of school. It’s not about selling your class to the students but, in a certain sense, enabling students to better sell the skills they learned in class to the world.

This kind of mentality is important to upcoming generations of students. Where once upon a time, students may have come to university trusting that what they’re learning would be beneficial and necessarily enhance their future prospects, increasingly students leave the classroom questioning what they are getting out of the class long-term. Answering the question ahead of time can alleviate stresses for the student down the road as well as buoy the perceived (and, I believe, real) value of the education provided. It is not about overhauling the entire system, but rather, about a small change in how teaching materials are being communicated. In my case, attendance went up, students became more thoroughly engaged, and the quality of the assignments students produced improved dramatically.

From what I’ve found, teaching with this “So, what’s the point?” approach is mutually beneficial for students as well as the instructor since it is always more enjoyable and fulfilling to teach engaged students invested in the class. It also imports a mentorship element where reiterating the practical objectives of a class reminds students of their instructor’s desire to create a classroom environment that can contribute to the success of their future chosen career paths. This environment also furthers the collaborative nature of the classroom and encourages the generative process of learning amongst all of the actors within the classroom. As teachers share connections between classroom material and real-life application, and students connect the material to their particular future aspirations, students become increasingly motivated to share their own perspectives and questions—ones that a teacher can then pick up on to integrate into the class moving forward, as well as into their own expertise in the topic at hand. The collaborative and generative classroom engaged inclusively around the ultimate applicable objectives of a class helps shift attention to the dynamics of the actual physical learning environment and lift eyes from the distractions on their computer screens. In the end, sometimes speaking to the aspirations and dreams of students can go a long way in helping students to achieve them.

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