Or why frustration drove me to set up this blog…
Just as knowledge and experience is the result of communities of learners working together, outstanding teaching is the result of educators working together to share ideas, experience and know-how to construct learning opportunities.
This blog is all about providing an opportunity to share the expertise and ideas about law teaching among law teachers to foster outstanding law teaching.
What’s with the odd name?
A ‘mermaid’s purse’ is another name for a shark’s egg. One of my favourite resources for
talking to final year law students is Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks by Grover E. Cleveland. But law students aren’t quite baby sharks. You could say that they’re still in a mermaid’s purse.
Why frustration drove me to set up this blog
This blog came about out of a sense of frustration with the ‘academisation’ of teaching and learning in law of an ‘early career’ law teacher – me.
By ‘academisation’ I mean the tendency for law teachers to write and talk about teaching in the same way they write and talk about the law. Writing about law teaching, just like the law itself (at least in common law countries), puts a heavy emphasis on precedent and the need to cite authority for teaching techniques.
That approach is hardly surprising in law school and certainly isn’t meant as a criticism of law teachers. Law schools teach law teachers. We’re molded to think about concepts and ideas in a certain way – usually with a degree of skepticism and a demand for proof. We put a heavy emphasis on the veneration of very old techniques. Why? Because the older the technique, surely the greater the authority it has? Just like precedent, if a principle has stood unchallenged or undisturbed for 10, 30 or 50 years, then it must still be good, right?
It’s also unsurprising when we think about where writing about law teaching gets published – peer-reviewed, academic (often) print journals that are hidden behind paywalls. So not only does the writing have to be couched in the right way, it also must advocate and prove that its contents are worth publishing.
Don’t get me wrong. There are approaches to teaching that have stood the test of time and are still ‘good law’. But the world around law school changes and, just like the law, sometimes it needs to change to reflect new problems, new attitudes and new communities. That’s also not to say that there is a little bit of theory than can help us think about what we do – but that’s not legal theory, it’s theory about teaching and learning.
The colonisation of law teaching by lawyers trained in legal research and advocacy stands in stark contrast to way classroom teachers are trained – the way I was trained when I left the law to embark on a career change as a classroom teacher.
Depending on where a classroom teacher is trained, they are exposed to theories of teaching and learning in philosophy, psychology and neuro-science. They are encouraged to see each student as an individual with their own experience and background that they bring to the classroom and on which teachers can capitalise to improve their learning.
They are encouraged to think about their own teaching philosophy – about what works and doesn’t work – based on their own research and observations of, and discussions with, students and other teachers. They are also encouraged to try new things based on that philosophy, their observations and the feedback they from their students and other teachers.
How often do journals about law teaching refer to Dewey, Vygotsky, Erikson, Rogers or even Knowles?
How often do we encourage other law teachers to come in, sit in on our classes and offer suggestions for improvement? (By the way, I hereby extend an open invitation to any reader to come and sit in on my classes).
Perhaps the most amazing thing about classroom teachers is that they are incredibly willing to share – share their time, their ideas, their curricula, their syllabi, their lesson plans, their materials – you name it, it’s available to use or borrow. There are even some amazing online archives of lesson plans submitted by teachers from all over the world, sometimes for free or a small fee.
I hadn’t seen a lot of that in the journals, conference and other forums for law teachers – with the notable exception of the opportunity I had to attend a conference organised by the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning, where all speakers are given the explicit instruction that they must conduct a session, not speak to a paper.
Why my PhD drove me to set up this blog
The other driver for this blog was my PhD research into teaching and learning in law schools – specifically what law school doesn’t tell students it’s telling them – sometimes referred to as the ‘informal’ (or slightly sinister-sounding ‘hidden’) curriculum.
I had the opportunity to come back to law school as a teacher and to undertake research into law teaching. It meant that I also came back to many of familiar ideas about teaching and learning that I met when I was a ‘student teacher’.
So, in the theme of ‘sharing’, this blog also provides an opportunity for me to think actively about how some of the ideas about how children and adults learn work in law school – and whether those ideas might help improve my law teaching.