Monthly Archives: February 2014

Legal Education: The Road from Socratic to Problem-based to Work-based Learning (Part 3)

This is the final part of a series of posts about the road legal education has taken from Socratic to problem-based to work-based learning. It is a personal and professional account of my experience since entering the world of legal education, something which I will be expanding upon in my presentation at the Centre for Legal Education Conference 2014

Last week I looked at how the Legal Practice Course (LPC) had developed the vocational stage of legal education and training, taking what was a traditionally delivered course (the Law Society Finals) and adding an element of realism by way of delivery using professional skills. But replacing delivery of pure content with problem-based learning was not without its difficulties. Problem-based learning, to be delivered well and effectively, requires greater resources than just one lecturer/tutor standing in front of a class communicating content and disseminating knowledge. The more problems that are set individually, the more resources are required, particularly if you do not embrace P2P (peer to peer) learning. Resources are expensive, especially human resource, and the cost of staffing the LPC was and still is of great concern to those providers old and new. A lot of new tutors were recruited from practice and although those recruited were not expecting the same remuneration they had been used to , they were still demanding something similar.

The answer seemed to be ‘efficiency’, partly as a result of the need to keep resource cost under control and partly as a result of the centrally and self-imposed shackles of equivalence placed on course designers by the governing bodies and QA guardians (although the term ‘Quality Assurance’ had not yet entered the business speak of LPC providers). The result: course design centred around uniform problem setting where there was only one correct method and one correct solution. All students were to have the same experience, with no diversity and no comparative discussion. Good from the institutions’ point of view (resources are quantifiable, predictable, equivalence is easily evidenced), boring from the learners’ point of view. A sausage factory where it is easy to allege that the course is spoon-fed and just a hurdle to overcome. Narrow problem-based learning like this does not challenge, interest or excite learners as much as the individual, unique experience of solving a professional problem or issue that is personal to you, an experience which can then be discussed, reflected upon and learnt from.

Of course, there were exceptions. I mentioned the GGSL’s SIMPLE Project last week which went some way to address the issue of common problem-setting by taking context a step further in terms of ‘realism’ in a virtual world. It’s a tool which has been commonly used, create a virtual town with virtual firms, clients, and problems. The effect however is the same: all learners tackle the same problem and are encouraged or tutored to arrive at the same solution using the same or similar methods. It’s just a question of how long it takes them to do so and by how many detours or dead-ends. I should stress that this is a criticism of the ‘one problem fits all’ approach to problem-based learning, an approach borne out of the desire to achieve consistency and equivalence of learning experience, rather than a criticism of the simulation approach to learning itself. Simulation is an effective answer to learning in a classroom-only environment but to truly simulate the work environment you need to have multiple individual problems where learners discuss and learn from each others experience not just a common problem where everyone’s learning experience is exactly the same. The latter is no more than an extension of Socratic teaching only delivered by facilitation rather than by traditional Socratic methods. In the learning environment I’ve described, facilitation is merely the corralling of common thought, a method of policing what learners are doing and ensuring that only the correct solution is arrived at. It often results in what I would call ‘mini-Socratic teaching’ where a tutor answers the question or delivers the content to students individually or in small groups, one group at a time. It has little to do with guided discovery which I think is the true meaning of facilitation.

Exempting law degrees and the integration of pro-bono clinics into LPC courses were also valiant exceptions worthy of mention but by and large most LPC providers created the same mould resulting in the oft heard allegations from students that the LPC was boring and dull. A sad unfolding of what was originally an exciting shift to skills teaching in the classroom.

Unfortunately, not a lot has changed as far as I can see in the way legal education is now delivered although I know that there are plenty of strategists and designers out there with innovative ideas. Criticism of the LPC in particular has become harder and harder to defend particularly in the light of increasing tuition fees and decreasing job opportunities on exit. It’s against this backdrop that work-based learning continues to gain popularity and I question whether the LPC has a future if it continues in its present state or whether it needs to adopt a more personal, collaborative, and reflective method of learning integrated with work-based learning.

So what of the future? Is it class-based, work-based, a blend of both or something entirely different? Big questions!

Simulations such as SIMPLE are excellent attempts to create a virtual world in which problem-based learning can be delivered. Last week I also mentioned my own experience concerning the design and implementation of an ePortfolio Pilot Assessment at the University of Law which highlighted a whole host of fundamental issues and problems when innovation clashes with conservatism, and design clashes with operations. The starting point however is what does work-based learning have to offer from a teaching and learning perspective (ignoring questions of finance, fees, job prospects) that problem-based learning could learn from? Well I would suggest the following:

  • It involves the real world not a virtual world and no matter how hard you try to recreate the real world you will never achieve it.
  • You will encounter an endless variety of problems and issues in the real world of work-based learning and a variety of contexts as opposed to just a few common problems normally encountered in traditional problem-based learning.
  • Reflection can be through comparison of context not just comparison of approach or technique.
  • The result is a very personalised learning experience which learners enjoy far more than just a common, uniform, pre-set experience.
  • It can be integrated with Personal Development Plans in a much more meaningful way than problem-based learning in the classroom.

Can work-based learning be recreated in the classroom? I think not. Should the classroom be used as an extension or progression of the work-based learning experience? In my opinion, undoubtedly, yes. The classroom offers opportunities for reflection, comparison, co-operation, collaboration, coaching and mentoring which should not be discounted. The challenge therefore is not to turn one’s back on problem-based learning or the classroom environment. The challenge is to develop problem-based learning in such a way that it is blended or integrated with work-based learning, creating a classroom experience that fosters a real sense of physical learning community. That is the challenge that I would like to see instructional designers and, more importantly legal eduction providers, now address.

If you’ve not already booked your place at the Centre for Legal Education Conference 2014 then it’s probably not too late to do so. Two of the central themes of the conference are the value of legal education and the value of work-based learning and class-based learning. There’s an excellent list of speakers and presenters and I’m sure there will be lots of interesting discussion and debate. Hope to see you there!