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Legal Education Digest

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Barker, D --- "Teaching law: a framework for instructional mastery" [2010] LegEdDig 31; (2010) 18(2) Legal Education Digest 53

Teaching law: a framework for instructional mastery

Nelson Miller

Bridge Publishing Group, LLC, 2010, 174 pp

With accompanying CD by Vickie Eggers

Bridge Publishing is a new law publisher with a commitment to producing texts relating solely to legal education and research. Teaching Law is one of their first publications written with a focus on the practical aspects of teaching and learning law. It is unusual but refreshing to encounter a text which is completely focused on teaching techniques for the study of law.

The book’s Foreword gives an interesting insight into the motives which encouraged Nelson Miller to undertake this enterprise. He makes the assumption that many law academics teach successfully without any formal education in teaching law. Whilst this may be true of the United States, there is a different approach in Australia where most new law teachers are expected to undertake a formal accredited teaching course in their first year of appointment as a law teacher. However this is not to reject the concept of such a book on the basis of regional differences in their approach to learning and teaching in law.

As the Foreword goes on to state, there is ‘another reason to look for a concise book on the basics of instructional competence when teaching law’. It supports this argument by citing the fact that whilst there is an enormous reserve of resources of ‘scholarly, empirical, and practical literature on teaching in general’ together with a similar output on ‘literature on teaching and learning in higher education’, the advantage of this current text is that it is able to offer a comprehensive and practical view of all the available literature. It is then encapsulated into a workable and understandable text for the recognition and application of basic teaching and learning concepts applicable to law school instruction.

There are also some additional features incorporated into the text which facilitate the aims and objectives of the author. Two of the main features are the use of Reflection boxes throughout the text encouraging the reader to interact with the text, and also the fact that each chapter ends with an Exercise. Although these might seem to be elementary techniques to some legal educators they do reinforce the intention of the author to seek commitment from the book’s readers for evidence and outcomes linked directly to their reading of the text. An added feature of the book is that the text is supplemented by a presentation file on compact disc created by Vickie Eggers, the director of the Center for Instructional Support at the author’s law school. This disc illustrates each of the book chapter’s principles and recommendations which it is suggested can either be used as an ongoing aide memoire or referred to as a visual presentation file on the compact disc.

In another interesting approach to the structure of the main body of the book, the format for the adaptation of the book’s 14 chapters is that each chapter corresponds to the normal 14 weeks of a North American law school term. The intention is that the law academic could read a chapter each week of the law school term and adapt it to the issues with which he or she is confronted as their teaching progresses throughout the term. To assist with this approach the content has been adjusted so that matters such as broader trends and issues in teaching, course objectives and course syllabi have been incorporated into the earlier chapters of the book.

This leads into a consideration of the substance of the text. As has already been stated, the early chapters deal with the development of basics relating to the installation of good learning (and teaching) habits. Chapter 1 provides an introduction to pedagogy, with a wide sweeping review of the various schools of thought regarding general education and culture, incorporating the paradigm shifts which have taken place during the ongoing history of legal education and the origins of law schools. It will not be surprising to learn that this includes references to Landell’s casebook and Socratic-method reform, and culminates in the 2007 Carnegie Foundation’s Report Educating Lawyers which emphasises the need for law schools to focus more on outcomes than inputs with a clearer definition of educational objectives. Whilst Chapter 2 is headed Course Objective – What Students Should Learn, and emphasises that to be an effective teacher one must know the purpose of instruction, it is Chapter 3 which is particularly helpful to even experienced teachers in assisting them to appreciate the critical role which syllabus plays in the development of a law curriculum and the importance of it being comprehensible to both the law student and the law academic. The exercise at the end of this chapter challenges the reader to draft or revise and enhance the syllabus for the course that they are currently teaching or will be teaching, and emphasises one of the chapter’s reflection boxes which questions how much information of potential significance the syllabus can contain.

The next group of chapters – 4 to 9 – is concerned with styles of instruction including two of its most common forms, that of lectures and the Socratic Method. The next chapters follow the description of these forms of instruction with an analysis of differentiating and integrating instruction as well as the manner in which the law academic disassembles a subject into its constituent parts. If necessary this must involve variegating instruction to serve more students and then reassembling it into its whole to ensure that students are able to recognise the relevance of the knowledge they have acquired. Chapters relating to visual displays and diversity are also incorporated into this group of chapters.

The penultimate chapters – 10 to 13 – are concerned with a neglected area of legal education – that of student assessment. These include such basic forms of assessment as grading, incorporating under this heading the principles and practices of grading, and how it may be criterion referenced and normalised. As chapter 10 states, to be able to teach effectively it is important that students are assessed consistently with accepted assessment principles and methodologies. There is practical advice in these chapters with regard to the most effective way in which multiple-choice questions can be made more meaningful, on how essay questions should match course objectives and how student assessment loops may be created, providing students with a formative form of assessment without creating an undue burden on the law teacher.

The concluding chapter 14 is headed: Vision – Experiences and Outcomes, and whilst the author in his foreword cautions the reader for expecting a chapter on vision to be theoretical rather than practical he argues that the vision chapter is as likely to be as practical as the rest of the book. In this chapter Nelson Miller epitomises the thrust of his teaching philosophy expressed in the preceding chapters when he states that not only do students appreciate teaching skills, they also notice and appreciate teaching vision and will flourish under a teaching spirit.

One of the strengths of the text is the comprehensive bibliography and appendices. The former contains 11 pages of wide-ranging international source material whilst the latter ranges from Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, through Syllabus, Exam and Grading Checklists to conclude with a Common Language of Learning and a Glossary.

This is an ambitious book in that it challenges law academics, whether new to legal education or with longstanding experience in the law teaching profession, to be not only willing to consider the purchase of but also to be eager to use a text which would no doubt enhance both their teaching vision and skills.

Emeritus Professor David Barker AM


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