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May 02 2006

About SAGES -3: The difficult task of changing education

It is a natural human trait to confuse ‘is’ with ‘ought,’ to think that what currently exists is also how things should be, especially with long-standing practices. The same is true with teaching methods. Once a way of teaching reaches a venerable stage, it is hard to conceive that things could be any different.

This post will be largely excerpts of an excellent article titled Making the Case by David A. Garvin from the September-October 2003, Volume 106, Number 1 issue of Harvard Magazine (p. 56), showing how hard it is to change the way we teach. It gives as an example the way that legal education changed to what it is today, what is now called the case method. Although this has become the ‘standard’ way law colleges operate, initial efforts to introduce this method faced enormous resistance from students and faculty and alumni. This is because all of us tend to be most comfortable with doing what we have always done and fear that change will be for the worse.

The article suggests that to succeed, the changes must be based on a deep understanding of education and require support and commitment over the long haul.

Christopher Columbus Langdell, the pioneer of the case method, attended Harvard Law School from 1851 to 1854 – twice the usual term of study. He spent his extra time as a research assistant and librarian, holed up in the school’s library reading legal decisions and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of court cases. Langdell’s career as a trial lawyer was undistinguished; his primary skill was researching and writing briefs. In 1870, Harvard president Charles William Eliot appointed Langdell, who had impressed him during a chance meeting when they were both students, as professor and then dean of the law school. Langdell immediately set about developing the case method.

At the time, law was taught by the Dwight Method, a combination of lecture, recitation, and drill named after a professor at Columbia. Students prepared for class by reading “treatises,” dense textbooks that interpreted the law and summarized the best thinking in the field. They were then tested – orally and in front of their peers – on their level of memorization and recall. Much of the real learning came later, during apprenticeships and on-the-job instruction.

Langdell’s approach was completely different. In his course on contracts, he insisted that students read only original sources – cases – and draw their own conclusions. To assist them, he assembled a set of cases and published them, with only a brief two-page introduction.

Langdell’s approach was much influenced by the then-prevailing inductive empiricism. He believed that lawyers, like scientists, worked with a deep understanding of a few core theories or principles; that understanding, in turn, was best developed via induction from a review of those appellate court decisions in which the principles first took tangible form. State laws might vary, but as long as lawyers understood the principles on which they were based, they should be able to practice anywhere. In Langdell’s words: “To have a mastery of these [principles or doctrines] as to be able to apply them with consistent facility and certainty to the ever-tangled skein of human affairs, is what constitutes a true lawyer….”

This view of the law shifted the locus of learning from law offices to the library. Craft skills and hands-on experience were far less important than a mastery of principles – the basis for deep, theoretical understanding
. . .
This view of the law also required a new approach to pedagogy. Inducing general principles from a small selection of cases was a challenging task, and students were unlikely to succeed without help. To guide them, Langdell developed through trial and error what is now called the Socratic method: an interrogatory style in which instructors question students closely about the facts of the case, the points at issue, judicial reasoning, underlying doctrines and principles, and comparisons with other cases. Students prepare for class knowing that they will have to do more than simply parrot back material they have memorized from lectures or textbooks; they will have to present their own interpretations and analysis, and face detailed follow-up questions from the instructor.

Langdell’s innovations initially met with enormous resistance. Many students were outraged. During the first three years of his administration, as word spread of Harvard’s new approach to legal education, enrollment at the school dropped from 165 to 117 students, leading Boston University to start a law school of its own. Alumni were in open revolt.

With Eliot’s backing, Langdell endured, remaining dean until 1895. By that time, the case method was firmly established at Harvard and six other law schools. Only in the late 1890s and early 1900s, as Chicago, Columbia, Yale, and other elite law schools warmed to the case method – and as Louis Brandeis and other successful Langdell students began to speak glowingly of their law-school experiences – did it diffuse more widely. By 1920, the case method had become the dominant form of legal education. It remains so today.

What we see being tried in SAGES has interesting parallels with what Langdell was trying to achieve. The idea is for students, rather than being the recipients of the distilled wisdom of experts and teachers and told directly what they should know, to study something in depth and to inductively argue their way to an understanding of basic but general principles. The Socratic format of the instructor interrogating students is not used in SAGES, replaced by the somewhat more gentle method of having peer discussions mediated by the instructor.

Taking a long view of past educational changes enables us to keep a sense of proportion. The way we teach now may seem natural and even the only way but usually when we look back it was deliberately introduced, often over considerable opposition, because of some developments in understanding of the nature of learning. As time goes by and our understanding of the learning process changes and deepens, it is natural to re-examine the way we teach as well.

I believe that SAGES takes advantage of what we understand now to be important new insights into learning. But we need to give it a chance to take root. Abandoning it at the first sign of difficulty is absurd because all innovations invariably run into difficulty at the beginning as everyone struggles to adapt to the new ways.

POST SCRIPT: ‘Mission Accomplished’ by the numbers

As usual, I am tardy in my recognition of anniversaries. But here is a sobering reminder of what has transpired since the infamous photo-op three years ago yesterday on the aircraft carrier.

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