Consequential transitions and undergraduate legal education: Part 2 – Practice implications

by Prof. Michael Lower, Associate Professor of Practice in Law, CUHK LAW


Introduction

A previous post outlined Beach’s theory of learning as a consequential transition and reflected on its general relevance for students entering undergraduate legal education. This post is concerned with the practice implications; how might the consequential transitions theory inform teaching and learning practice and assessment practice? I hope that this post will give educators some food for thought when they reflect on their own practices and on how they might develop them.


Consequential transitions theory

My earlier blog post identified the following central features of the consequential transitions theory:


- learning is understood in terms of the forging of a new relationship between the learner and a social activity (such as legal education);


- this often demands struggle on the part of the learner;


- learners forge new identities as a result;


- artifacts (objects that are created as storehouses of the knowledge relevant to the social activity) are central to forging the relationship between the learner and the social activity;


- learners make use of artifacts to carry out the tasks proper to the social activity (to legal education in our case); and


- learners can also create social artifacts or find new and creative uses for existing artifacts and so contribute to social development (developmental change of the social activity).


This post looks at the implications of this view of learning for teaching / learning and assessment practices.


Collaboration, mentoring and social relationships

Crafter and Maunder call for approaches, ‘prioritising the development of relationships for learners undertaking educational transition by providing lots of opportunity for social networking; ongoing collaborative activity; and helping to nurture relationships between new and existing members of the learning community (either through informal or more formal means such as mentoring and buddying)’ (Crafter and Maunder, 2012: 16).


Collaboration, mentoring and buddying can provide social relationships which are beneficial because they can give the learning environment a positive affective dimension; other people act as role models and sources of useful knowledge.

Collaboration can be a formal feature of teaching and learning, as where students are required to work in small groups. It also makes sense for teachers to encourage, and try to support, the informal learning networks that students set up for themselves.


In an earlier blog post, Vivian Chen and I described the design and experience of an undergraduate Issues in Property Law course. Students worked in groups of three to five on a conference presentation and blog post. Each group was supported by a research postgraduate student who acted as a facilitator for the group.


Students were positive about the benefits of collaboration: more ideas; having an opportunity to interact with others; being able to express one’s ideas and understandings without fear of judgment. Other students reported that working in collaborative groups was a kind of peer teaching experience as group members corrected each other’s misunderstandings. Collaboration allowed students to support each other through the difficulties of the learning process.


Research postgraduate students, acting as facilitators, were ideally placed to support students engaged in inquiry-based learning. They had recently been undergraduates themselves but were now becoming legal researchers. They could predict the challenges that the undergraduate students were likely to face, but also had a sense of how to overcome them.


One of the students reported that the facilitators ‘Guided discussion, contributed when they thought we were going off topic, gave useful examples for us to use and challenged our ideas’.


Having professionals act as mentors for young students as they prepare for life in the workplace is another example of a social relationship that can support students as they prepare for the transition from Law School to the workplace.


Framing student work as a contribution to public knowledge

Engle (2006) suggests that teachers should ‘frame’ learning for students. Teachers should encourage students to see themselves ‘as authors who are engaged with a broad community of people actively involved in the conversation with them’ (Engle, 2006: 457).

This ‘socializes a learner into the practice of sharing one’s ideas’ (Engle, 2006: 457), a practice that is central to any form of higher education. Students are helped ‘to view themselves as people who would continue to author such things in the future’ (Engle, 2006: 487).


Again, learning is seen as forging an educationally relevant link between the student and other participants in the social activity. Perhaps here we can think of activities where students create artifacts that might be of interest to other Law students, legal professionals or scholars or members of the public with an interest in legal issues.


It is easy to see the importance of learning activities that develop students’ academic writing skills. This inducts students into one of the central forms of discourse in the university; it equips students to contribute to the formal knowledge-building discourse of the discipline. They are engaging in the practices proper to legal education, legal scholarship and the university as a space for scholarly discourse.


Academic writing involves struggle for students (as it does for teachers). As educators we can support students in a variety of ways. We can explain the elements of a successful article or essay in a declarative way and then look for ways of helping students to know how to make use of that knowledge in their writing practices.


I have developed a feedback sheet for use when evaluating student essays. It captures in tabular form the qualities that I feel a good essay or article should have. I go through this with students, both in large group sessions and in face-to-face meetings. It helps to crystallise things for students.


The next stage is to provide students with exemplars, such as essays or articles written by other students. They can then evaluate this work by reference to the feedback sheet; ideally this should be done by students who share their thoughts in small, collaborative groups.


The teacher can also act as a role model. Publishing in scholarly journals is one way of doing this. Teachers might also publish blog posts, textbooks or prepare other written (or audio-visual) scholarly materials and this work can also provide students with exemplars.


Students, perhaps supported by or in collaboration with teachers, could produce podcasts or write blog posts on themes related to their legal studies. Here students would be addressing a community of interested others, as Engle recommends, and would be forced to express their understandings and ideas.


In the Issues in Property Law elective mentioned earlier, students were required to work in small groups on a blog post (800 – 1250 words) related to the general theme of Property Law. I prepared a blog post feedback sheet setting out, in tabular form, the features of a good blog post. I used this to explain to students what was required of them.


I asked students to read three blog posts about legal issues posted to the Australian edition of The Conversation blog. I then asked them to work in their small groups to evaluate these blog posts by reference to the feedback sheet. I hoped that this would help them to consciously reflect on, and internalise, the qualities of a good blog post.

Ideally, student work will be published so that their work addresses the broader imagined audience; quite a few CUHK Law students have published in peer reviewed journals. Students can also be encouraged to submit their posts to specialist blogs. Teachers could set up blogs relevant to their subjects and this could be done in collaboration with students.


I had already created, initially working with Vivian Chen and a group of undergraduate students, an Issues in Property Law blog (https://www.iiplhk.law.cuhk.edu.hk/). The blog hosts contributions by students, including work produced in the Issues in Property Law elective.


Student essays, blog posts and published articles are all examples of how students are ‘producing culture in addition to mastering that which already exists’ (Beach, 2003: 131). Where students set up new digital platforms, such as a blog (alone or with their teachers) then they participate in the development of the social activity by generating new forms of knowledge production and dissemination.


Pro-Am Communities

Gee describes the emergence of ‘Pro-Am’ communities in society and suggests that learning how to get on in such communities could be a useful form of twenty-first century learning and assessment.


He comments that, ‘[w]e live in the age of “Pro-Ams”: amateurs who have become experts at whatever they have developed a passion for’ (Gee, 2020: 29). Pro-ams, driven by their passion for a subject, are adept at collaborating with each other, ‘to fulfil their intellectual and social passions’ (Gee, 2020: 29).


Whatever our interest, we are probably aware of pro-Am communities operating on various social media presenting and discussing their subjects. Gee’s suggestion is that we could encourage our students to participate in pro-Am communities relevant to their subjects (some area of Law in our case). We could also try to organise these communities. The Issues in Property Law blog mentioned earlier could be seen as an attempt to set up such a pro-Am community.


Gee goes further and suggests that this participation could even count for assessment purposes if the standards required by the Pro-Am community can satisfy the criteria that we look for as educators.


He concludes that ‘one of the jobs of twenty-first century assessment ought to be validating social organizations of learning. The job of twenty-first century educators ought to be designing such social organizations and then letting them run. As they run, members themselves may well find new ways to enhance learning and judgments about learning. We can, in turn, validate these as they arise’ (Gee, 202: 36).


We could imagine the Issues in Property Law blog, combined perhaps with a programme of Property Law seminars open to the general public. These are the backbone of a new social organization, related to a course that students are studying, but also an independent organization or community.


Community membership would be open to students, professionals and anyone with an interest. Students might partner with teachers to contribute to the work of this informal organization. Student learning, and the Law School, would be creating a new space for an engagement with the subject that operates across the boundaries that separate the University from the outside world.


Simulated activities

‘Encompassing transitions’ are transitions that ‘occur within educational activities that project or simulate involvement in an activity yet to be fully experienced’ (Beach, 1999: 118). Students engaged in undergraduate legal education often see this as directly linked to anticipated future work as a solicitor or barrister.


It is no surprise that students often welcome activities that simulate the future work-place, such as mooting. Clinical legal education and internships are activities that engage students more directly in the anticipated future workplace.


It can be easy to re-frame common tasks to emphasise that this is what is going on. For example, students can be asked to write emails or letters of advice to clients or a report for a Governmental body or think tank. This element of simulating future employment can give students a sense of the real-life relevance of the work they do. Learning tasks can be carefully chosen so that students can see that the tasks raise issues they might face in practice.


Gee (2010) talks of the importance of ‘authentic assessments’ which, ‘tell us whether learners, faced with a complex problem, know how “to go on”, how to probe, reflect, assess, and reprobe on a trajectory of action to a goal’ (Gee, 2010: 34).


Simulated client activities, or having students engage in particularly richly described case studies, perhaps with scenaria that evolve as the students progress through them, might be examples of this type of assessment. The aim would be to test whether students probe and evaluate the situation, and then act, as a fully-fledged professional would.


Assessment

Beach (2010) (commenting on Gee) considers the implications for assessment practices. The following principles emerge:


1. Assessment should prompt learners to improve their ability to operate in the domain / social activity (mentoring / formative function) but also check that the learner has made their own the domain’s norms, values, goals and ability to deploy knowledge to work / solve problems (policing /credentialling / summative function);


2. Assessment should allow students to produce culture and craft a new identity; and


3. Assessment might expand the domain / social activity in some way.


Clearly, any number of ways of enacting these ideas can be imagined. I return to the blog post exercise from the Issues in Property Law elective. This, linked to the opportunity to contribute to a specialist blog such as the Issues in Property Law blog, is one possible example.


The assessment task, writing a publishable blog post, requires students to engage in the practices of legal scholarship. If the post is published it is a contribution to culture. The exercise supports the student’s struggle to craft a new identity as a legal scholar and a proficient Law student. The assessment criteria require the production of good work and align with the standards of good legal research.


Students could be trained, or train themselves, to take on editorial roles. This would take matters a stage further since it would arguably amount to an even greater claim to have understood the norms and values of legal practice. The student would not only be being assessed but would be assessing the work of others and so be more deeply embedded in the process of knowledge production.


Conclusion

This blog post suggests the following avenues for enriching teaching and learning practices and assessment practices in the light of Beach’s theory of learning as a consequential transition:


- Foster collaboration, mentoring and social relationships between students and between students and others who can support them in their transition;


- Frame student work as a contribution to public knowledge;


- Encourage students to participate in Pro-Am communities, and perhaps organize such communities themselves;


- Have students engage in activities that simulate the work of professional activities, or that involve participation in professional activities (clinical legal education and internships);


- Ensure assessment is ‘authentic’ so that students need to demonstrate an ability to probe, evaluate and react to a situation as a professional lawyer would.



BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beach, K., (1999). Consequential transitions: A sociocultural expedition beyond transfer in education. Review of Research in Education. 24, pp. 101 – 139, doi: 10.2307/1167268.

Beach, K. (2003). Consequential transitions: A developmental view of knowledge propagation through social organizations. In Tuomi Grohn, T. and Engestrom, Y. (eds) Between school and work: New perspectives on transfer and boundary crossing. Amsterdam: Pergamon, pp. 39 – 62.

Beach, K. (2010) ‘Growing learning and assessment in the 21st century’. In Shute V. (et al) eds. Innovative assessment for the 21st century. Boston, MA: Springer. pp. 41 – 47.

Crafter, S. and Maunder, R. (2012). Understanding transitions using a sociocultural framework. Educational and Child Psychology. 29 (1), pp. 10 – 18.

Engle, R. (2006). Framing Interactions to Foster Generative Learning: A Situative Explanation of Transfer in a Community of Learners Classroom. The Journal of the Learning Sciences. 15 (4), pp. 451-498

Gee, J. (2010) Human Action and Social Groups as the Natural Home of Assessment: Thoughts on 21st Century Learning and Assessment. In Shute V. (et al) eds. Innovative assessment for the 21st century. Boston, MA: Springer

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Harvard University Press: Cambridge

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