Research and reflections on being a ‘good’ teacher

The Sydney Law School hosts several legal education seminars each year, and theme for 2022 is Award Winning Teachers. In April, the series was kicked off by none other that our own award-winning Professor Simon Rice.

Professor Rice has taught law in the community, to various professions, and to law students at UNSW, Macquarie, ANU and Sydney, where he has been nominated and won a variety of teaching awards. He has a master’s degree in Education, has been in two teams awarded national teaching grants, and has researched and written on experiential learning and critical perspectives in the curriculum.

In this post, Professor Rice outlines some of his teaching principles and illustrates how teachers can consciously adopt and apply them in any form of teaching.

There is no one right way to teach law; there are, however, principles of effective adult education which enhance both students’ engagement and the teacher’s experience.

Professor Simon Rice, Legal Education Seminar, Sydney Law School, 27 April 2022

Respect, a core foundation of my teaching

My teaching approach is quite straightforward: respect students as intelligent adults with the capacity to inquire, learn and develop. Informed by Freire, my approach is not to ‘bank’ my knowledge into the minds of students, but to collaborate with them in interrogating propositions to arrive at a shared understanding. Informed by Jean Piaget (Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child), my approach is to foster in students the courage to express and explore their own ideas and values; I validate their experience and insights, and lead them to experimentation and discovery. I am inspired by my students, and I learn from my teaching.

This is not an easy approach, for me or the students. For me, it takes more time and effort than it would if I were to merely declare my knowledge in their presence; a relationship is much more demanding than a monologue is. As well, the approach requires me to negotiate with the students a balance between the facilitative and collegial role of a critical facilitator, and the inherent and at times necessary authority of a teacher in an institution. Part of what influences, motivates and inspires students comes from my own experience and insights, so I weave my own story into theirs, and into the unit content, to establish a shared narrative to which both students and I contribute.

For the students, too, it takes more effort than it does to sit passively and be a receptacle for delivered content. It can be an unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, approach to education for them, not usually reinforced in other units or by other teachers. As a result, I am explicit about my approach, discussing with the students ideas of diverse learning styles, responsibility for learning, facilitated and respectful discussion, and reflective practice.

Structured learning activities

A further insight from Piaget is the centrality of considered and designed activity to learning; not just any activity will do, and my class activities are carefully constructed to develop progressive comprehension towards learning goals.

Size is no object, and process is essential.

The foundation of my teaching approach is students’ engagement with scholarship. Reinforced by a weekly assessment regime, students bring to class knowledge of what the literature says, and that becomes the subject in class of my comment and explication, and their analysis, critique and application. The required reading is carefully chosen, diverse in style and perspectives, and manageable in quantity so that I can justly expect it to have been read.

For example, I design fact scenarios to address what the students recognise as the topic for the day, but I add additional dimensions of other legal issues, social context or personal values that draw the students – working in small groups – into discussions that connect the issues with their own studies, lives and experiences.

What about assessment?

My approach to assessment asks students to think critically and reflectively about law in its social context, and about themselves: their roles, their future and their values. I give emphasis to alignment of assessment tasks with learning outcomes, enable students’ capacity for reflection and self-assessment, and invest in students’ long-term ability to learn. Complementing this, my approach to feedback is detailed, constructive and engaged, conducting a dialogue with the student in a way that continues their learning.

A learning outcome in my teaching is directed towards students’ better understanding of themselves.

An example is in a large compulsory unit on legal ethics, where each student prepares and delivers a lawyer’s short oral application to the court, seeking bail or a lenient sentence for a client. The facts raise ethical issues for the lawyer, requiring the students to actually resolve competing duties to the court and the client. Students’ reflections draw out the students’ appreciation of an ethical dilemma they otherwise only read about, and of their personal values in lawyering.

I grade a reflection credibly, by ensuring that students are prepared for and supported in this approach, which is an unfamiliar one for many. Students are aware of and are assessed against a clear rubric, and are provided detailed feedback. My feedback is essentially a conversation, characterised by my own reflections on and questions about what the student has written (‘I wonder …’; ‘Perhaps…’); for recurring journal entries, my feedback can be the basis for the students’ further reflections.

Importantly, I learn from the students’ reflective writing, and from their online and class discussions. Their themes and perspectives, their insights and revelations, and their uncertainties and questions, all inform my teaching – in the next class as much as in the next iteration of the unit – and deepen my own understanding of the issues I am teaching.

My principles and relevant examples

Teach so that others learn. How we teach is a function of how they learn. It’s not what we want to do; it’s what they need us to do.

Respect epistemic cognition: the relationship between the learner and the knowledge to be acquired (see Timothy Casey, ‘Reflective Practice in Legal Education: The Stages of Reflection’, (2014) 20 Clinical Law Review 317, 318- 331)

In short, treat them like adults. Move past dualism and introduce multiplicity, mitigate your authority and invite them to seek principles. Respect and develop their capacity to process experience. That means:

  1. Expect the students to have done the work. They can read and write and recall; what that means to them is the stage we want to get to.
  2. Connect students and their experience with the subject matter. Teaching jurisprudence, for example, to illustrate deontology and consequentialism, and positivism and natural law, we can invite students to think about decisions they make in social situations, among friends and family; decisions they expect others to make; to see those instances differently through the various lenses the literature offers them.
  3. Help students understand the ‘why’ and not merely the what. Students can find contemporary examples in current affairs and their own experiences – case studies – that illustrate the reality of the principles that we are learning: the causing of harm and damage; the breaking of agreements; the conduct of trials; inquiries into corporate wrongdoing.
  4. Challenge students’ received world view. Invite students to comprehend diverse perspectives, relying on critical readings, guests, and role-plays.
  5. Give students a voice. Involve students in the experience of learning by using small groups and online discussions to create safe spaces for them to speak. We can seek and validate their views.
  6. Promote reflection. Through the practice of reflection we can get students past the passive receipt of knowledge – their deference to authority – to work it out for themselves. We can use the literature, and practice, to teach students to reflect.
  7. Teach through assessment:
    • we must align assessment with learning outcomes (don’t assess what you don’t teach)
    • we must have transparent criteria (avoid arbitrariness, and promote your own accountability)
    • we must give constructive feedback (‘talk’ to the students in your comments – not ‘no’, ‘wrong’, or ‘X’ – engage in a dialogue and develop their understanding.)

Want to know more?

Professor Rice’s teaching is inspired and informed by Paolo Freire’s critical pedagogy as well as, more broadly, by Jean Piaget (Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child) and, in the context of legal education, by critical legal scholarship such as the work of Duncan Kennedy, and by clinical legal scholarship such as the work of Lucie White and Gerald Lopez. His study and use of this literature has been a dynamic process for many years, through which he seeks to inspire students to embrace and pursue learning.

A copy of the seminar recording and full note is available on the Law Education Staff Portal. If you do not have access, please contact Lana Kolta (lana.kolta@sydney.edu.au).

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