Disabling education?


Earlier today I was reading through a paper by Jenkins, Healey and Zetter on the HEA website entitled “Linking teaching and research in disciplines and departments” (published in April 2007). I was struck and somewhat depressed by the fact that none of the examples they cited were of developments in UK law schools. Of course I can’t say for sure why that was (I haven’t asked them for one thing), but when I also tried to track down examples of research-based teaching on the UKCLE website, I found remarkably little there either. Of course, the good news might be that everyone in law schools has sussed out the teaching-research nexus, and its so second nature now that nobody bothers to talk about it. But somehow I don’t think so.

Before going any further with this potential rant, I ought to clarify an earlier distinction that Alan Jenkins and Mick Healey made between research-led and research-based teaching, because I think it is fairly crucial. Research-led teaching, putting it crudely, reflects the student-as-audience paradigm of teaching, where they sit back and admire our erudition as we introduce them to our latest piece of cutting-edge research. Research-based teaching, on the other hand is a form of inquiry-based learning which treats the student as a (joint) participant in the research (and hence the learning) process. My betting is that, beyond the still fairly ubiquitous and highly variable experience of writing a final year dissertation, most law undergraduates experience at least some research-led teaching but very little genuinely research-based learning.

If that’s so, then I suggest we are missing a real opportunity and perpetuating a form of what (adapting Ivan Illych’s notion of disabling professions) I am inclined to call disabling education – an education that actively disempowers our students. It manifests itself in the attitude that we can’t or shouldn’t expect too much originality or creativity of poor little undergraduates. A variation of the same attitude seems to emerge with monotonous regularity in discussions about clinical legal education, when non-participants express doubts/shock/total horror at the idea of undergraduates actually being allowed to give legal advice to real people.

For us as academics to keep students at arms length from the experience of research seems to involve

(a) an impressive example of discrepant reasoning – speaking personally it was precisely the experience of doing a research project and being encouraged to write as an undergraduate that led me to start thinking about academia as a career, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that, or
(b) pure humbug – do we really think that the skills we have developed as researchers are so advanced and so specialised that they are wholly beyond the ken of our students?

and, from the point of view of the future of the academic profession, it is surely about as smart a survival strategy as being in the front row of the charge of the Light Brigade.

I do know that there are some examples of research-based learning happening in our law schools, and I’d love to hear from other colleagues who are doing this sort of work. I know that the people leading these courses find them engaging, motivating and exciting for themselves and their students, and that developing the research-teaching nexus has direct benefits for their own research, as well as for their students’ learning. In a recent e-mail exchange, Ben Pontin, who has been doing some very interesting research-based work with his Environmental Law module at UWE Bristol, observed “Students are brilliant at gathering ‘raw material’ – trawling historical archives (newpapers, official records, family histories) for snippets of information; detective work. Also, there was a geography dimension to the research, and students enjoyed designing field trips to the sites of leading nuisance actions, to identify whether any trace of what claimants were seeking to protect remains today. However, where students needed input from an academic was in interpreting the significance of empirical findings. Great at treating law as a material object (a field or stately home protected against a polluting factory or sewage works), students struggled with law’s ideas!” I think that last observation makes for a particularly interesting insight and suggests a useful point around which we could reconstruct the role of the teacher in a more research-based legal education process.

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