How to be a great legal lecturer?

i am great

Last week  The Economist  (June 11-17) addressed the issue of  “quality of teaching”. Although the briefing focused on teaching children, it contained useful observations, truths and suggestions for improving teaching adult legal learners too.

Legal lecturers work hard trying to expand students’ and professionals’ expertise. But it is no feast.  Despite the efforts, the result of legal lecturing remains, generally speaking, poor. All the work put in by learners and lecturers does not prevent that, generally speaking, little is learned in class. Even less is retrievable afterwards back at work or during an exam. Frustration runs high for learners, their managers, their paymasters and sometimes for the lecturers. Globally, the total amount spent on failing legal training is impressive.

The quality of the lecturing is not correlated to the lecturer’s legal experience. Poor learning results can be found in lecturing by both novice and veteran professors, lawyers, tax specialists and judges. It is the lacking teaching expertise that in most cases causes the disappointing outcome.

The Economist’s briefing focused on conventional in-class experiences. It did not include the contribution that technology based learning support like e-learning or clickers might bring to the lecturing process. Increasingly, such digital-based support is becoming indispensable for high quality training in class.

Some observations from The Economist briefing:

No talent needed

Good teaching is not an innate gift. It is an intricate, complex and beautiful craft that can be learned by most people. Good legal teachers are generally not born but made on teacher-training colleges or specialized workshops.

Further, legal lecturers could learn from more experienced colleagues. Currently, two-fifths of teachers in the OECD say they never had a chance to learn by sitting in on another teacher’s lesson. Neither have they been asked to give feedback to their peers. That is a waste. Let teachers sit in with other teachers and give feedback to each other.

So long PowerPoint slides

There is a lot of misunderstanding of what works and what does not work in lecturing. In a recent report, Rob Coe of Durham University refers to two vital features of good lecturing:  1. high quality instruction and 2. “pedagogical content knowledge”- a blend of subject knowledge and teaching craft. These come together in the lecturer usingcognitive activation strategies and class management strategies.

Successful lecturing is interactive. Out goes the monotype monodirectional PowerPoint slide-supported lecture to passive learners.  In comes the lecture where the learner actively participates in the lecture.  Lecturers ask “why” and “how” questions. Learners summarize, compare, evaluate, solve increasingly difficult authentic problems. Participants develop their critical thinking and their problem solving skills. The lecturer provides opportunities for informed practice. Lecturers support the learner’s learning activities instead of lecturing. The sage on the stage becomes the guide on the side.

Me … not good?

Three out of five low performing lecturers in the USA think that they are doing a great job. Nine out of ten teachers in the OECD say they are well prepared. The results of their teaching show otherwise. Tests and interviews of legal ex-trainees indicate that their lecturing hardly contributed to  performance improvement on the job.

Many legal lecturers are ignorant about the ineffectiveness of their lecturing (or hope it will not be discovered). And those who are aware of their gaps and want to improve, often do not know how to improve the situation or do not receive adequate support.

Lecturers should therefore be provided with feedback on the long-term results of their lecturing. This would create awareness and acknowledgement of the gap that exists between presumed and actual  lecturing expertise. Such acknowledgment releases the needed interest and energy to improve  lecturing capabilities. Again peer feedback and specialised workshops might offer help.

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