Teaching on a Blank Canvas
My dear law students,
I often wonder how law teachers would react if they were allowed to teach unencumbered by regulations, parent and student pressures, and placement demands.
What if one could develop one’s ideas about teaching and learning on a blank canvas?
I think what we will come up with will bear scant resemblance to what is being done now.
If I were given the opportunity to revise pedagogy in the law, I would divide learning into three parts- doctrine, analytical reasoning and effective writing.
By doctrine, I mean information about any domain of law that is the foundation for building legal research and advisory work.
For contract law, this would be the basics of formation, performance, breach, enforcement and damages.
For income tax law, this would be the schedular system and the income realisation events in each of the schedules, filing of returns and collection.
Doctrinal instruction should not take more than four weeks in a sixteen-week semester. The problem is not that such doctrinal instruction is not possible, but the paucity of instruction.
We don’t have the texts that can supply information in a crisp and clear fashion. Our books come from a lineage where controversies, critical inquiry and straight forward information are all mixed up together. But the ecosystem is changing, albeit slowly.
Both book publishers and online education providers are developing domain specific information in capsule form.
In this part of my ideal teaching paradigm, we don’t need classroom teaching to play a dominant role. A student can pick up information by reading texts or doing an online course.
The only reason a teacher needs to provide this instruction is to avoid tedium. But these four weeks can easily be a completely self taught online process, provided the texts used are up to the mark.
But this is only the beginning. The second part is concerned with analytical reasoning. Students must be taught how to harness legislative provisions and case law to build an argument that provides an answer to a particular legal problem.
We must do away with the charade of formulae in statutory interpretation, popularized by textbooks that liberally sprinkle Noscitur a Sociis and Ejusdem Generis and other such Latin phrases like one of Hermione’s spells but with no discernible results other than confusion.
Law is irredeemably controversial. There are no formulae to arrive at a correct statutory interpretation.
The golden rule is not a rule; it is a device used by every lawyer to advance their case. Analytic reasoning in the law is therefore unique among disciplines in that first students must be disabused of the perception, widely shared outside academia as well, that the requirements of the law can be understood perfectly once one understands better the maxims of statutory interpretation.
Once the students are rid of this notion, they are ready to accept that almost any conceivable legal proposition worth making needs an argument, and there is no software that provides a ready made answer.
How does one go about making a legal argument?
Well, that will require one to ask what principles best fit and justify the legal materials one is dealt with, and then chart out what these principles would require in the situation confronted by the student.
This is the kind of holistic and value based enquiry our students are simply not taught in law schools at present.
The third part is the most difficult part. We have to make our students write clearly, precisely and accurately.
Each person has the ability to do this, put his or her imagination to paper, but it takes time and effort. Most importantly it requires constant feedback from the teacher.
A feedback loop consisting of first drafts, review, second drafts and final submission, when done right, has the potential to transform a student’s writing.
Working with students on their writing is an unglamorous activity that often goes unrewarded in academia. But this is the part where the students require an enormous amount of attention.
These are the thoughts on my blank canvas. I wonder what are yours.
School of Law
BML Munjal University