Legal Education Digest
Deep Learning, Critical Thinking and Teaching for Law Reform
 LegEdDig 33; (2006) 14(4) Legal Education Digest 22
39 Law Teacher 3, 2005, pp 243–258
The legal system does not always operate fairly. Some lawyers become law teachers because we hope we can make a difference. We teach so that students understand the injustices of our legal system and become motivated to reform the law. To assess our progress towards this goal, it is important periodically to reflect on the effectiveness of our teaching approaches. This article questions the effectiveness of current teaching approaches and explores alternatives that might better motivate students to take responsibility for social and legal change. It is argued that the most effective approach to engage students is one that facilitates deep learning. But what is deep learning and why does it lead to change?
When we have learnt something, our approach to the world, or our world-view, is re-organised. Following this reorganisation, our understanding is usually more sophisticated and multi-faceted. The type of learning that leads to this internal change has been described as deep learning. The concept of deep learning links learning with social change. If deep learning permits us to see our world differently, then we have changed. Change is therefore a consequence of deep learning.
It can be generally observed that law schools across Australia intend that their students learn deeply. In many course outlines, students are directed to do more than memorise information. Students are frequently asked critically to analyse laws, legal systems, procedures and methods in creative and insightful ways. However, are our teaching approaches effective in supporting deep learning?
In order to facilitate social change, teaching approaches must enable a deep and critical understanding. Teaching practices must focus on students’ actions and provide opportunities for students to question, extrapolate and hypothesise. It is not sufficient to have emotive stories, more rigorous arguments or more persuasive communication techniques. Students are simply not empty vessels. Rather, change through critical understanding is something that students will need to construct for themselves through actively engaging with topics of social importance in personally meaningful ways.
In order to demonstrate alternative teaching practices for deep learning in large groups, the teaching experience chosen for discussion is a legal conference presentation. So that the conference session might facilitate ‘deep learning’, the session focused on how the conference participant could understand the topic ‘legal education’ differently.
Before the session’s goals could be articulated, a number of preliminary issues required examination. Firstly, it was necessary to identify the participants’ current teaching practices and the conceptual understanding supporting those practices. In other words, it was critically important to ground the deep learning experience by recognising that these learners were not ‘empty vessels’. The next preliminary issue was to clearly articulate what the author wanted to achieve in the session, namely to suggest that engaging students actively and critically would be more effective in encouraging deep learning than other approaches. It was only after identifying where the participants were starting from and comparing that with the understanding that it was intended participants would leave with, that it was possible to articulate what they would need to understand differently. Only then was it possible to construct learning goals for the session that would facilitate this process.
Five specific learning goals were subsequently articulated to describe how conference participants would come to understand teaching approaches differently: (1) identify their own teaching practice explicitly; (2) identify the assumptions underlying their own practice; (3) identify discrepancies between their own teaching practices and underlying assumptions so that a desire to change and consider alternatives might be stimulated; (4) question information transmission as the only teaching practice possible; and (5) explore alternative teaching practices, including ‘what the student does’ and hypothesise on other contextual possibilities.
Together, these goals reflect learning stages which would enable each participant to step from their prior understanding of teaching approaches to new understandings. In this way, the intention was that the learning experience would be deep, and that it would actively and critically engage the participants.
To construct appropriate learning activities, it was necessary to identify a meaningful conceptual framework through which participants’ understanding of teaching approaches might be re-organised. Five learning activities were then designed for the 10 minute session: activity 1: introduce the framework for analysing teaching approaches; activity 2: ask the conference participants to apply that framework to analyse their own personal teaching approaches; activity 3: ask participants to compare and contrast different approaches used by other participants; activity 4: generate new ideas and contexts for teaching practices; and activity 5: reflect in the large group on any discrepancy between actual approaches used and the desirability of the different approaches through facilitative questioning. The five activities were designed to model an alternative approach to teaching that attempted to achieve ‘deep learning’ by facilitating active and critical engagement.
When the participants were asked to identify their own teaching approach and assumptions through a show of hands, a large majority of the group participated, which reflected an understanding of the key concepts in the quiz. During activity 4, there were a number of contributions made from a variety of groups that demonstrated serious thought and consideration of the issues. At the conclusion of the session, there was an audible ‘aha’ moment when the concluding comments drew each participant’s attention to how their own learning had happened. The concluding comments identified that their learning had happened because the session had engaged them through personal critical reflection, not because they had been persuaded to change through lecturing.
There are a number of implications that emerge from a teaching approach that focuses on active critical thinking or ‘what the student does’. While the conference presentation describes the facilitation of a deep learning experience for professional legal educators, the effectiveness of the approach is applicable to many other legal educational contexts.
Second, it is important to qualify the potential success of a teaching approach which focuses on ‘what the student does’. There is no direct causal relationship between teaching activities and social change. Even the most effective teaching practice is neither necessary nor sufficient to facilitate social change. Good teaching is not necessary because some students may learn deeply anyway. Nor is good teaching sufficient because there is an element of agency in the student where they need to engage in the construction of their own learning. Therefore, while focussing on ‘what the student does’ is not a guarantee for success, a teaching approach that focuses on ‘what the student does’ may enhance the potential outcomes of legal education.
Finally, if good teaching practice is equated with critical engagement rather than information transmission, the question of whether or not we should teach to create social change becomes irrelevant. Teaching to achieve a deep learning experience for students is very different. Teaching to change is facilitated by the teacher through critical activities, but it is ultimately constructed by the student. An approach that focuses on ‘what the student does’ recognises student choice in the process of learning because they are made active participants in their own change.