Mind the learning gapOctober 9th, 2011
I have my teaching gig by way of my law degree. My career goal was always to pursue farm, food and environmental policy issues, so I feel right at home in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Policy choices and legal problems are inextricably intertwined, so I love thinking about the material. My ultimate goal is to teach my students the process of policy and legal analysis and problem solving.
The traditional law school teaching method is the “Socratic Method,” where professors question students on the cases that we read for homework, but rarely ever make a statement of fact or law in class. As law students, we were most frustrated with our Constitutional Law professor, who would only make non-committal whines and squeaks in response to student answers, so we couldn’t even tell if a fellow student was correctly answering the question!
But by the end of the class, I found that I learned a tremendous amount from that professor because I was challenged to evaluate the answers for myself and check it against my own understanding of the material. We students then wrestled with the “right” answers in our own small groups by articulating the material for ourselves.
Moving from that unique educational environment, I keep in mind that I am teaching an undergraduate course, not a law school course. There is a learning gap here, both in the material, the readiness of the students, and the course environment. I try to use a “modified” Socratic Method of my own invention in my class, and use the same approach on the Discussion Board. I ask students to explain a case and respond to each other. I jump in with clarification or congratulations on a job well done, but I try to let them sort out the issues. My goal is NOT to teach them how things ARE, or SHOULD be, but to give them tools to evaluate these problems and make the arguments themselves.
Ok, so my goal is partially to teach them how things are currently done, how things ARE. We review the current status of environmental law, what the courts have said about different statutes, what it means for polluters and for people affected by pollution. But the law is ever evolving, so it means (almost) nothing to know what the law says right now. Thinking about this helps me to break down my class objectives. We have to start with recollection and comprehension. That will take a more traditional content delivery. But then we need to quickly move to the process tools of analysis, problem solving, and synthesis. Maybe even on to creation of new ideas and tools to solve legal environmental problems. I am realizing that I have been using the “objectives” already without the labels attached. I hope I can do them in a more conscious and methodological way. Now, on to the tools! How to convey this information in the online environment is my challenge.