My teaching philosophy (or What would Death do?)

WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR HOGSWATCH? Said the Hogfather hurriedly…
‘I wanta narmy. Anna big castle wif pointy bits,’ said the child. ‘Anna swored.’

The Hogfather reached into his sack and produced – a sword.  It was four feet long and glinted along the blade.
The mother took a deep breath.
‘You can’t give her that!’ she screamed.  ‘Its not safe.’
‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.
‘What is she cuts herself?’
Uncle Heavy whispered urgently.
The blade went wooden.

Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

the hogfather
Death as The Hogfather from the BBC’s 2006 adaptation of Pratchett’s book.

Terry Pratchett’s fantasy book Hogfather, sees Death (who always speaks in capitals and takes things very literally) handing out gifts to children in the role of Hogfather (Pratchett’s version of Santa Claus) to save Hogswatch (Pratchett’s version of Christmas).

Notwithstanding that major educational theorists are often perceived to be at odds with one another, there is considerable common ground around some key concepts – concepts that should be part of any approach to teaching.  I’m not suggesting for a minute that law students (or children) should be given swords, but teaching should be based on:

  • ‘I wanna swored’ – Learner-initiated activities and experiences,
  • ‘The Hogfather produced a sword’ – Real life experiences and materials to make the experience as relevant as possible, and
  • ‘You can’t give her that!’ – Teachers shouldn’t be afraid of trying new things, traditional methods often resulting in inflexibility and atrophy of those methods.

The passage, unfortunately, also highlights something that occurs with unique approaches – views about what is traditional and ‘proper’ often prevail and ‘the blade becomes wooden’.

‘I wanna swored’ – Learner initiated activities

Dry instruction achieves little more than, at best, repetition of facts and, at worst, boredom and disengagement.

Students are actively engaged in constructing their own knowledge.  They are not a blank slate or an empty vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge.

Programs for children – especially for those from low socio-economic backgrounds – that directly involve students and encourage experimentation have been demonstrated to produce better learning outcomes.  Activities that are driven by students themselves also result in greater student engagement with those activities.

That’s not an excuse for a teacher to stand back and believe that learning will simply happen.  The onus is on the teacher to plan, observe, facilitate and assess to ensure that the teaching episodes they plan are educational.

Scaffolded thinking

This role becomes increasingly important given the uniform application of academic standards and the expectations of students and their potential employers.  It must, however, be balanced with an approach that avoids too much intervention other than to provide the necessary scaffolding.

‘Scaffolding’ is a word that gets used a lot by teachers, but we need to be very clear about what it means.  It is, in fact, an “apprenticeship in thinking” in which the teacher demonstrates the concept or skill and then gradually hands responsibility to the student.

‘Death produced a sword’ – Real life experiences and real life materials

For it to be effective, learning opportunities need to have direct and authentic application to the student’s life though exposure to authentic, real experiences.  To introduce hypothetical models that deconstruct ideas or concepts into smaller parts will simply not connect with the student’s expectations.

Trying to disengage law school from real world experiences is also impossible.  The language, design, staffing and student populations of a classroom are inexorably linked to the community within which it exists.  To disconnect education to the real world renders the teaching process meaningless.   Naturally, students disengage with learning if they cannot see its connection to ‘the real world’.

‘You can’t give her that!’ – Trying new things

Inflexibility and rigidity in educational systems create vulnerability.

Students coming into law school are subject to an incredibly diverse and different range of experiences than law students in the 1950s, 1960s or even the 1990s.  The law school experience needs to take those changes into account in the way in which it engages with law students.

Any approach to teaching cannot be rigidly applied.  If a classroom is truly a reflection of the community within which it exists, it must change with the community around it. Otherwise it becomes irrelevant and valueless to students.

Conclusion – The blade becomes wooden (and something on keeping a sense of humour)

Law teachers are products of educational systems themselves.  Memories of sitting in seemingly endless lectures or seminars are something with which everyone identifies.  Trying something new can, therefore, be exceptionally challenging.

However, there is a strong basis for trying new approaches and encouraging greater independence in students.

Ultimately, I hope these observations also reflect another significant aspect of my approach to working with law students – the need to maintain a sense of humour.