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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Our Students as Teachers and Critics

I admit to being a slow thinker, rather slower than those witty, quick come back people who keep a party crowd, a pack of journalists at a press conference, or a jury panel nicely entertained.

So slow am I that it’s taken years to pull the threads, join the dots, and point the finger at the stubborn wrongheadedness of our student critique approach. But I’ve got there at last and, being these days a bit forgetful, I hasten to pass these comments to you before their existence is unknown to me.

What we do as teachers is to take a student’s performance and critique it as though the only participants inside the performance circle are the student and the teacher. The student jumps none too elegantly through the hoop and then, by one formula or another, we tell them of one or more imperfections, explain the ‘why’, and then tell and maybe (if we’re brave, or egotistical, or both) perform the solution. Meantime the audience of other students sits outside the ring and – if we’re to believe the popular culture – think about you know what (they were lucky, or they weren’t; they want to be lucky and maybe if they just…; and it’s not trial advocacy!).

We, the teachers, have to bring everyone into the ring. There’s no time, no excuse, for passivity or being mentally some other place. To watch and listen is not too learn. To learn one has to take the chance, to try, to fail, to try again – just as we did as we learned to walk. Every one of our students – whatever their advocacy experience - has a lifetime of communication experience to draw upon in advocacy exercises. It’s a part of our job to draw upon those experiences and give them additional use – as resources in preparing and running a trial.

This past year I’ve taught classes of from 16- 80 or more students with more success in terms of demonstrated skill development than ever before, but with no other traditional teacher help. What’s the secret? There isn’t one: I just made every student a teacher from experience, just as every successful solo teacher in remote schools has done for aeons.

Here’s an example. I want each student to develop their template for asking a witness on their side about that witness’s sighting of someone around a crime scene. To set the scene I perform a simple role play in the teaching room; for example, leaving the room and shutting the door, then knocking from the outside, opening the door, looking around the room, uttering some swear word, and leaving by slamming the door. I do this routine two or three times so as to ensure that everyone in the class has adequate opportunity to master the ‘facts’ and the sequence of them. Of course they are quick to notice if I miss a detail on iteration two or three.

Developmentally this poses such skill issues as: the student being able to see the scene in 3D as the witness experienced it and can ‘see’ it again if the questioning is good; incremental picture building so that the audience gets just one detailed, moving, 3D picture of the episode; setting a baseline from which the witness describes what they saw and heard, that baseline being ‘visible’ to all third party listeners; creating, authenticating and tendering a diagram; why multiple copies of that diagram are needed so that this witness and later witnesses can put marks on the diagram and so create additional exhibits; how to use present sensory impressions of everyone in the court room to convey common understandings of distance, sight lines, length of opportunity time, and degree of illumination; asking the witness what is her or his strongest recollection about the ‘someone’ and then moving from that point of recollection to the witness’s next descriptive recollection; and pointing out the problems with asking a witness about recollection according to some formula which, unless the first question matches their best memory, dooms the witness to repeated failure.

My job is to facilitate the students exploring these issues in turn, by their making suggestions, trying them out, seeing and hearing what works and doesn’t work. I offer explanations that bed down their experiences as acts to practise or acts to avoid. I am a ringmaster - but to many, not one performer.

And so as a collective we work our way through the challenges of technique and personal style. I invite each student to make their own notes as we go, sufficient to enable them to get it right the next time and the time after that. Then as the Master of Ceremonies I tell them where we’ve been and that lets them double check their memory cues to be sure they have noted enough. Mission accomplished as everyone has been a player, moving through a variety of learning and teaching roles.

1 comment:

  1. Hugh is on to something here. Nearly bereft of the resources that many of us have become accustomed to here in the States, he has been teaching advocacy on a shoestring for several years. Necessity being the mother of invention, circumstances have made it imperative for him to develop advocacy teaching paradigms that involve a very high student-instructor ratio, but with high expectations for student outcomes and performances. His solution is to co-opt the students and make them responsible for their learning process.

    A few years ago, Jim Seckinger introduced me to the concept of the focused student-on-student critique. Jim would create an evaluation sheet with clear criteria, hand it to students, and have them critique each other's performances. These critiques usually focused on simple observations that one might expect would lead to useful student input: body language, posture, form of questions, tone of voice, and so forth. From time to time, I've used modifications of Jim's methods in my own teaching, always with success.

    But what Hugh suggests is almost revolutionary in an advocacy teaching environment. The advocacy teacher becomes more of a facilitator--a midwife, if you will--in the learning process. The students are required to take greater responsibility not only for their own individual performances, but also for their peers. They teach each other.

    Since Hugh first shared his experiences with me a couple of years ago, I've been inspired by his example and have started down his path. Lacking his age, wisdom and experience, I haven't advanced down it as far as he has, but I've found it to be a pleasant and rewarding journey. It seems to be a good experience for the students as well.

    Let me share a quick example of this in action. Last spring, my Mock Trial Board ran an intramural closing argument competition at our law school. I selected a case file, established the rules, and took care of many administrative tasks. The students on the board agreed to serve as competition mentors for any students who wished to avail themselves of their services.

    Roughly one-third of the competitors took the Mock Trial Board up on their mentoring offer. Without exception, those who accepted the help outperformed their peers by a wide margin. All of the students who accepted help were 1Ls. None of the 2Ls accepted help or coaching. What I found most interesting was that the 1Ls--none of whom had taken evidence or any trial-related courses--outperformed not only their fellow 1Ls, but also the majority of the 2Ls.

    I enjoyed seeing the individual influence of my student mentors on the competitors. Many aspects of their own personalities and approaches to advocacy were reflected in their mentees. But the most rewarding thing to observe was how well the mentees had mastered the fundamentals. What their peers taught them was valuable.

    I'm seeing this again as we start our trial team practices for fall competitions. Some of my team members--the 1Ls from last year--have not yet taken a trial advocacy or conducted a case analysis. One of my more experienced students took the time to draft a "how-to" memo on case analysis for them. The memo is brilliant. It speaks to them in their own language, incorporates the best of what I've taught them about case analysis, and includes some innovations that I will now use the next time I formally teach case analysis.

    I realize this is a lengthy comment to Hugh's post, but I'm excited about what he's doing. It works!