Posted in Teaching

Context/Skill Divide in [Legal Research] Education

apple2-blogThe more I teach, the more I find myself researching in education literature (no surprise there, I guess). Whether or not I’m reading about legal education, my thoughts always lead me to how I can apply what I’m reading to law schools, and especially, legal research.

I read an interesting article from The Atlantic this week about elementary education in the U.S. and how the push for reading comprehension skills may be backfiring in terms of producing better educated children. (Natalie Wexler, “Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong,” The Atlantic (Aug. 2019).)

The article was fascinating, and quite worth the read, but I’ll summarize my takeaways. Essentially, Wexler writes about the disconnect students have with reading material when they’re focused solely on practicing the skills of reading comprehension, such as identifying the main idea, drawing conclusions, comparing and contrasting, etc., or as Wexler puts it, “‘learning to read’ before ‘reading to learn’.” This all sounds practical, right? Well, as it turns out, all this focus on comprehension skills isn’t actually producing better readers. And in fact, it’s causing an achievement gap between kids from wealthier families versus kids from families with less resources. Wexler goes on to describe a number of case studies in which content, rather than skill, was the focus of learning, where the results showed far less of an achievement divide, and, in fact, a greater enthusiasm to learn from even those students with weaker reading skills.

So, how does this relate to legal research? Quite a bit, I think. While reading the article, I couldn’t help but think, gosh, I teach a skills-focused course… am I doing my students a disservice? Are we so focused on skill mastery that I’m creating an achievement divide? Thankfully, I believe I’ve talked myself off of that proverbial ledge. I don’t think a legal research course is quite the same context; however, I do think there are things we can learn from this article to help us be more effective legal research instructors. Namely, a research skill on its own has less meaning than when it’s put in context. That is, an assignment question that says, “Find a legal encyclopedia article that says ____,” doesn’t reinforce the context in which a legal encyclopedia can be helpful in research. Crafting the question around a brief hypothetical, that puts into context a scenario in which a legal encyclopedia might be your best bet would be more meaningful. Following that up with an extension on the hypothetical that asks the student to find an answer to a question that won’t be in an encyclopedia, but might be in a law review article (for instance, some currently developing legal topic that wouldn’t have been published yet in an encyclopedia) would be a great way to have students compare and contrast (one of those pesky reading comp skills) the varying usefulness of each resource.

If you’re teaching a legal research course that’s tied to a particular seminar, you can get even more context-driven, since the students are all learning the same subject. Relate the research skills to that. However, if, like me, you teach a survey course in Advanced Legal Research, with a mix of 2nd- and 3rd-year students, their backgrounds are far less uniform. One thing they do all have in common, though, are the first-year subjects they took, which is why our final capstone assignment typically involves tortious conduct. So never fear! All is not lost when teaching a skills-focused course. Just remember that context and content familiarity augment mastery of skills, and construct your course accordingly.

By the way, Wexler’s article is adapted from her book, The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System & How to Fix It. Guess what’s going on my ‘To Read’ list?

Author:

I am the Assistant Director for Public Services at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law. My research interests include exploring how emerging and existing technologies can be used to enhance library services and legal education as well as how to address knowledge gaps and meet the educational expectations of today's law students.

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