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Anzalone, F M --- "It All Begins with You: Improving Law School Learning through Professional Self-awareness and Critical Reflection" [2006] LegEdDig 13; (2006) 14(3) Legal Education Digest 17

It All Begins with You: Improving Law School Learning Through Professional Self-Awareness and Critical Reflection

F M Anzalone

[2006] LegEdDig 13; (2006) 14(3) Legal Education Digest 17

24 Hamline L Rev, 2001, pp 325–371

This paper presents a modest proposal for becoming a better teacher. By knowing more about ourselves and our own learning processes, preferences, and inclinations, we will become better teachers. We will discover why we have elected to teach as we do, and we will also uncover when we have been on automatic pilot, blithely accepting the role of law professor, as conceived by our institutions, our students’ expectations, and our preconceived assumptions. Second, this paper is a kind of phenomenology of discovery about learning theory.

Although knowledge of student learning and thinking styles is helpful to both teacher and student, it is only one part of the equation in improving legal pedagogy. We need to think as well about the learning style differences of law professors, and the resultant differences in teaching styles. Self-awareness of one’s own learning preferences, thinking style and intelligences, together with rigorous critical reflection about pedagogy, is the best first step toward improving law school teaching.

Thoughtful legal educators have looked at law school pedagogy and found that traditional approaches emphasise doctrinal analysis at the cost of the development of interpersonal and problem solving skills. In response to criticisms and changes in the learner population, law schools have made strides in changing classroom techniques. In addition, there have been efforts to tailor a number of upper level and clinical courses to diverse learning styles. Another intriguing development is the institution of academic support programs to address the diversity of learning styles and to overcome some of the barriers the modern law school poses for a diverse student body.

Learning is not restricted to problem solving, and the identification and management of external problems should not be its sole focus. Legal educators should consider modelling critical reflection themselves. By analogy, we law professors, as professionals, should reflect on our own demeanour in the classroom to begin to identify the ways in which we may inadvertently contribute to dissonance in the classroom. Most legal educators have neither the time nor the desire to become applied learning theorists.

Without being aware of it, most of us are probably teaching in the style that we are most comfortable learning. Many of us do not even know how we learn best or how we prefer to learn. The rationale for self-assessment is this: in learning about himself or herself, a law professor learns how he or she learns, and he or she becomes familiar with styles and preferences other than her own. Learning and teaching are not solely cognitive activities. Being mindful of the emotional, as well as the cognitive, realm would enhance classroom rapport and help to establish a successful learning environment.

To effectively reach our students, we need to turn inward first. This would be both more manageable and more immediately enlightening for most faculty members than focusing on the learning styles of students as a means of improving pedagogy. Spending time analyzing our own learning styles and preferences and making sense of who we are first would make the diversity of our students more comprehensible to us. Investigating ways to improve our teaching is a learning process. One way of becoming a better teacher, then, is to become a learner again, to face something novel and unfamiliar from the other side of the podium.

By investigating applied learning theory while focusing on themselves, law professors would, at the very least, become more reflective about their teaching methods, and they would be modelling positive self-assessment for their students. Becoming more aware of our own learning as a means of enhancing our pedagogy is a critically reflective act. Legal educators embarking on a path of serious self-analysis would do well to thoroughly explore the three intellectual traditions that underpin the literature of critical refection: critical pedagogy, reflective practice, and adult learning and education.

Critical pedagogy helps teachers look at teaching contextually. It gives law professors a means of questioning institutional and individual assumptions and belief systems in the legal academy by providing a political framework within which to envision their unique roles. However, the perspective of critical pedagogy alone is inadequate.

Reflective practice is significant for law teachers on a number of levels. Law professors can also use reflective practice as a teaching technique, encouraging their students to apply it in their careers as practising attorneys. By first defining and understanding our own unique qualities, strengths, weaknesses, and learning preferences, we will improve our professional practice of teaching. Reflective teachers would, as a matter of good professional practice, regularly identify and test assumptions underlying their practice and, from the assessments, thoughtful teachers would make attempts to transform their teaching to better meet the demands of their unique classroom situations.

Finding one’s authentic voice through rigorous self-assessment and critical reflection is one way for law teachers to resist the impulse to adopt a preconceived role. The purpose of this rigorous self-analysis is, of course, to be able to engage more authentically and more meaningfully with students to improve their learning.

Self-reflection is a necessary ingredient in the transformational process of adult personality development. Thus, in our efforts to improve our teaching to enhance student learning, we must first carefully consider our own natural proclivities and inclinations to understand and improve our teaching. Law professors need knowledge acquisition paradigms for lifelong learning for their own self-improvement and self-discovery. Legal educators and law schools cannot improve without first examining tacit assumptions about effectiveness at both the individual and organisational level. Any program of teaching evaluation will inevitably lead educators toward transformative learning and self-reflection.

Today’s law school classroom is made up of learners with varied gender, racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Much of the legal academy’s literature on pedagogy has focused on helping the instructor to identify and accommodate the resultant diversity in cognitive processing, thinking and learning styles. Although teachers should not teach to groups, but to individuals’ learning styles, self-knowledge is the teacher’s most powerful tool for change. It is essentially impossible for instructors to identify the specific array that is each student’s learning and thinking style. Instead, by using applied learning theory, an instructor can put him or herself in the powerful position by being receptive to and respectful of difference in the learning process.

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