We are writing this blog as we travel back from the Celebrating Excellence in Law Teaching Conference at the University of Warwick. Surrounded by a seething mass of humanity, we reflected that what immediately struck us about today was that so much of our pre-discussions on our outward rail journey were replicated in the presentations on the changing face of legal education as well as the pedagogic techniques on display. Those moments when you look at each other with open mouths, and realise your ‘problems’ are universal.
The conference started briskly, with the first topic concerning the ‘prickly’ issue of feedback. Dr Emily Finch talked about several different techniques she had employed with varying degrees of success. There was a consensus amongst delegates that students appreciated voice feedback due to its subtler nuances and dislike written standard comments. Using screencasts was popular with students, but of course the negative side of more thorough feedback is the time it takes – time, however, being something, the whole room agreed, was in very short supply.
Dr Yvonne Skipper followed, with a fascinating psychological insight into mindsets concerning the mutability of intelligence. She identified a fixed / growth mindset continuum which relates to performance and mastery goals respectively. In other words, are students just aiming to pass an exam or do they also aspire to acquire a deeper understanding of the subject? The counter argument was expressed that any motivation can be valuable. It was clear, though, that some of the universities represented have been actively promoting growth mindsets and engineering brain plasticity during their induction activities, to embed aspirations to improve performance through perseverance.
Dr Finch and Dr Skipper agreed that the student/tutor relationship could be helpfully compared to that between an athlete and coach. It is never enough simply for the tutor to tell the student how to improve performance, the student needs to put the advice into practice. This is a partnership. The real effect of perseverance and practice was graphically explained using a time-lapse video of a brain neurone; gaining in length and thickness as a skill was practised – physically demonstrating that a brain can, indeed, be hard-wired through practice.
The next session was charged with considering the ‘E3’student – the E s representing engaged, effective and employable. With highly regarded UCLan alumnus Professor Becky Huxley-Binns, the discussion first focused on employability – the view taken that (obviously) all students are employable (and often employed), and therefore casting doubt on this as an integral aspect of the student experience outcomes. In fact, Becky re-stated this as D3 – is this Doable? Desirable? – well, it is Debatable!
Ensuring students are employable within given sectors when they leave, was what mattered. The conversation then included concepts of student engagement as Professor Lisa Webley explored how we gradually inculcate autonomous learning by equipping students with the tools. Learning, of course, should not be focused on outcome, but on the journey itself. Teaching is not about transmission of facts or skills, or, indeed, ‘teaching to test’ but a far deeper instillation of hunger for knowledge and ensuring that confidence is built; there is a need for language choices to made with caution – mindful always of the implicit message. We must promote the ability not to be afraid of what is not yet known. Employability and exam results should be a bi- product of mastery and not framed as the only performance outcome.
The morning session was wrapped up with a rousing battle cry from Professor Alastair Hudson. Warning about the risks of the insidious corporatisation, bureaucratisation and commodification of higher education, which now sets the context and makes everything more difficult. We all agreed with him, that the decimation of the content of our libraries, the centralisation of administrative services, tutorial group sizes of up to (or more than) 24, everything dictated by its FEC, and architectural resistance (inadequate or non-existent rooms), resulted from a focus on finance from ‘those above’. All these factors were restricting our ability to provide the service to students, which – universally agreed – was necessary. Professor Huxley-Binns expressed her fear that if the sector continues along this track, we are at risk of “denuding education of its emancipatory potential.”
There could not have been a gathering of legal educators without the spectre of the SQE looming over us – lots of discussion about this, but the most interesting observation was that SQE contains a vast syllabus of law skewed towards the interest of the bourgeoisie; a law syllabus for the wealthy. There was exasperation at the changes afoot and the lack of clear guidance for planning, or an understandable rationale, but as always the resilience of staff was palpable. Whatever is required, we will deliver it.
The highlight of the day for the UCLan staff present, was the student panel of two including our own Emma- Jane Darley. Emma, who started as a mature foundation student, and has now successfully completed the second year of her MLaw course, was put on the spot with questions from the floor. She emphasised the importance of a nurturing environment populated with law lecturers who care about the individual, and have time to get to know their students. Emma described many instances when our staff had gone well ‘above and beyond’…. really heartwarming comments. Of course, she also highlighted some shortcomings – these largely corresponded with the elements being eroded through corporatisation – already mentioned above.
This was a truly illuminating conference – going beyond mere pedagogy. A general agreement, cemented by the comments of the student panel, illustrated the importance attached to warmth and rapport in the student/tutor relationship. Other key messages were the importance of using experiential learning and flipped learning in small groups to improve engagement (and therefore ‘employability’ – although that term was universally decried).
A good conference means you don’t consider leaving at lunchtime, and a sprint for the train at tea-time underlines our enjoyment. Chatting, reflecting, in rhythm with the tracks, we agreed it was a good chance to share ideas – however humble.
In Prof Hudson’s words “We can’t all do great things, but we can do small things with great love”.
♥ Viv Ivins
♥ Fiona Bledge
♥ Susan Fletcher