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Teachers’ knowledge and the professionalism of legal educators

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

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


Teachers necessarily have theories about how their students learn, the purpose or purposes of education and how they can best achieve these goals. It would be impossible to teach without having given at least some thought to these questions. As we progress in our teaching career, experience and feedback from students either confirm our theories or suggest that we need to revise them.

It may, be, however, that our theories are largely tacit and not subjected to explicit reflection and evaluation. The argument in this blog post is that our identity as professional educators is deepened and enhanced when we can engage in high quality reflection on our teaching.

This reflection will be informed by:

- personal reflection on our classroom experience;

- data and feedback from students;

- engagement with educational theory and scholarly literature about teaching and learning.

Engagement with scholarly literature about teaching and learning is, I argue, an important part of our professional identity as teachers. It can help us to understand what works in teaching and learning and give us new ideas to try out in our practice. This engagement can help us reflect more deeply on our teaching and learning practices.

Teacher professionalism: thinking about the principles of effective teaching

As teachers, we are professionals and part of what it means to be a professional is that not only can we teach effectively but we can also give reasons for why we are effective, or how our teaching practices might be improved.

Shulman commented:

‘The teacher is capable of reflection leading to self-knowledge, the metacognitive awareness that distinguishes draftsman from architect, bookkeeper from auditor. A professional is capable not only of practicing and understanding his or her craft but of communicating the reasons for professional decisions and actions to others.’ (Shulman, 1986: 13)

There are, no doubt, many effective teachers who have learned what works, and what does not, purely through deep reflection on their classroom experience. Shulman’s point is that a defining characteristic of the teacher as professional is that the teacher can explain not only what works, but also why it works; the professional teacher needs to be able to give reasons for what they do. Engagement with the literature on teaching and learning can help us understand the principles that underlie effective teaching and learning.

Is the search for reasons a waste of time? Isn’t it enough to know what to do, without worrying about why it works? If we were engaged in a routine, mechanized task that might be true. But we are working with people, trying to help our students to be transformed by their encounter with legal education.

The learning process is complex. Each class has its own context and brings its own problems and opportunities, and we need to know how to react intelligently to them. If we have thought through the reasons for action, the principles that underpin our teaching, we have a firmer basis for adapting our teaching to changing contexts. These principles provide us with a framework that can guide our teaching and learning practice.

If we are sensible, we will accept that there is always room for improvement in our teaching. If we have thought carefully about the elements of effective teaching, we are better placed to analyse the things that go wrong and to plan remedial action.

Conceptions of teacher professionalism

One characteristic of a profession is that it has its own knowledge base and a sense of the values inherent in professional practice.

Winch points to a range of ways of conceiving of the professionalism of teachers. The difference between them concerns the ability of the teacher to draw on theory to inform practice, and even contribute to the development of theory:

  • Craft occupation (relying on techniques, sceptical about ‘theory’, theory takes the form of ‘commonsense’)

  • Executive technician (implementing protocols derived from theory)

  • Technician (can call on research, guided by aims and values, conceptual framework for thinking about education and teaching, all contributing to a sense of self as practitioner of an esteemed occupation)

  • Technologist (can also contribute to theory by reflection on the prior use of theory in practice)

  • Researcher (primary focus is the development of theory) (Winch, 2017).

The craft occupation approach is the least sophisticated conception of professionalism. Here the teacher is thought to learn by doing, by working ‘at the chalkface’. Those who think of teaching in this way may be sceptical about the point of engaging with educational theory.

The executive technician approach, by contrast, does see the need for engagement with educational theory and educational research. It is not necessarily the teacher who engages with theory, however. Instead, an ‘expert’ distils this theory into recipes for effective teaching which are then given to the teacher to be implemented.

The technician conception of the teacher is, I believe, a much more satisfying conception of teacher professionalism. Here the teacher draws on educational theory and literature to support reflection on their own teaching and learning and on how it can be improved. The technician can draw on theory and a conception of the values inherent in higher education to inform the decisions that they make in their teaching practice.

The technologist takes this a stage further and uses the lessons of research-informed practice to contribute to the development of theory. There is a dialogical relationship between theory and practice in this conception; theory informs practice and practice contributes to the development of theory.

The researcher is someone whose primary concern is the development of theory. This role is vital but probably not the route that many legal educators will take. The researcher is not necessarily directly engaged with educational practice.

The teacher’s professional knowledge

Shulman (1986) argued that teachers have three kinds of knowledge:

  • Content knowledge – as legal educators we are experts in the subjects that we teach and we have an understanding of the legal system and its values in general and of how to engage in legal reasoning

  • Pedagogical content knowledge – we also know how to present our subject knowledge to students in such a way that they can understand it and enter into an active relationship with it;

  • Curricular knowledge - we can put our teaching into the context of the overall curriculum; we understand how what we teach fits into the overall academic phase of legal education and training.

Teachers’ knowledge takes three forms:

  • Propositional knowledge – this covers: (a) the results of disciplined inquiry (principles); (b) the fruit of practical experience (maxims); and (c) moral and ethical reasoning (norms).

  • Case knowledge – ‘knowledge of specific, well-documented and richly described events’ (Shulman, 1986: 11). Shulman sees cases as both a research tool and a way of transmitting the professional knowledge of teachers. They can capture and often combine theoretical principles, maxims or norms.

  • Strategic knowledge – the teacher brings together ‘principled skills’ and ‘well-studied cases’ (Shulman, 1986: 12). Shulman comments that, ‘strategic knowledge comes into play as the teacher confronts particular situations or problems, whether theoretical, practical or moral, where principles collide and no simple solution is possible’ (Shulman, 1986: 12 – 13).

Principles - educational research provides us with detailed insight into the principles that underpin effective teaching. For example, Reflective Teaching in Higher Education (Ashwin et al, 2020) proposes ten principles that can promote a deeper understanding of higher education teaching practices. Principle 6, for example, is that effective teaching needs assessment to be congruent with learning.

Principles like this inform the teacher’s work of designing effective teaching and learning environments and supporting students as they engage with them. They are broad and it is for the teacher to reflect on them and decide how they should shape teaching practice in the teacher’s own specific context.

Ashwin et al explain that their principles ‘are based on international research findings about effective learning, teaching and assessment in higher education’ (Ashwin et al, 2020: x). Texts such as Reflective Teaching in Higher Education could provide legal educators with a starting point for engaging with the findings of educational research and the principles derived from them.

Packaging principles into pedagogies

According to Shulman, then, the teacher draws on educational empirical research for principles. It would be hard, however, for teachers to commit long lists of principles to memory and there is a class of theory which draws principles together into a coherent framework which acts as ‘intellectual scaffolding’ (Shulman, 1986: 11).

Pedagogical theories, such as the communities of inquiry pedagogy, offer a coherent framework for designing teaching and learning environments. They bring together much of what we know about the principles of effective teaching and learning in a format that makes it easier for the teacher to draw on them in teaching and learning practice.

Case knowledge

Story-telling is an important way for us to communicate our attempts to improve our teaching and how they worked it. Often, this story-telling is informal but it is also what is taking place in many conference presentations and journal articles about legal education (or educational practice in any other discipline). The conference presentation or article is, of course likely to be more structured and reflective than the informal conversation in the corridor.

Shulman comments: ‘using the power of a case literature to illuminate both the practical and the theoretical, I argue for the development of a case literature whose organization and use will be profoundly and self-consciously theoretical’ (Shulman, 1986: 11).

The stories we tell about our teaching practices can be thought of as cases which are used to convey ideas and experiences about teaching practice. Having a rich stock of cases to draw on is an asset for the teacher. The idea of the benefit of cases as a store of knowledge should be intuitively obvious to legal educators, perhaps especially those trained in the common law.

Stories or cases, however, are relatively weak as knowledge resources unless they are informed by theory. Why did the presenter of the case do what they did? What accounts for the success or failure of the practice that is being described? In what terms are success or failure to be considered?

The analogy of cases as sources of precedent in the common law can help us to get the idea. In a legal judgment, the facts and the relevant legal principles are in a dialogical relationship. The facts of the dispute suggest that certain legal principles are relevant, and the relevant legal principles also help to determine which facts are relevant.

The facts of a dispute might make us think that a particular legal doctrine (proprietary estoppel, say) might be relevant. We use our knowledge of legal theory to consider whether a particular case might be one of proprietary estoppel. This then leads to a renewed examination of the facts to see which of them might be relevant if the doctrine is to be applied. The judgment is made public. It becomes a precedent, telling a story about proprietary estoppel and how it works in a particular context.

The same is true of cases as a tool of educational research. Case knowledge, if it is to be valuable, brings theory and practice together. Principles are applied to practice. We might for instance present a case of how we attempted to make assessment congruent with learning.

The presentation of the case might explain why we thought there was a problem with our assessment practices and their relationship to what we wanted students to learn. We can point to the principle that assessment should be congruent with learning (and the educational literature to support this proposition). We explain the steps we took to move closer to this congruence in our assessment practices and the data we gathered as to whether the steps taken improved matters.

Thus, theory and the way in which it can be drawn on in practice are tested by experience and reflection. Presenting the case to one’s peers, formally or informally, is a way of making clear (to ourselves in the first place) what the case is all about. We also seek validation (or critique) of what we claim to have learned from our case by presenting it to our peers. The case is then a precedent, part of the public knowledge base of teachers.

This works best, however, if both the person who presents the case and the colleagues to whom it is presented have a sufficient grasp of the relevant educational principle; here, the principle that assessment should be congruent with learning.

Reflective scholars are needed, ‘capable of preparing and interpreting cases’ for ‘there is no real case knowledge without theoretical understanding’ (Shulman, 1986: 12). Both the educator who prepares the case, and the educator to whom it is presented, need to know what a given case is an example of. There needs to be a common understanding of the principles or norms that are engaged.

Strategic knowledge

Strategic knowledge is the knowledge that teachers deploy as they react in the spur of the moment to problems that arise in educational practice. This knowledge, too, draws on theory (perhaps embedded in cases) that has become part of the educator’s armoury, ready to be deployed as needed. Strategic knowledge is the fruit of reflection that has allowed the educator to develop a sense of their own educational values.

Strategic knowledge may be similar to the Aristotelian concept of phronesis or practical wisdom. Carr explains that phronesis involves understanding the human goods that are internal to any practice (such as teaching) and the development of an understanding of how to pursue that good in the midst of the day-to-day contingencies of practice (Carr, 2004: 61 -2).

How can educators engage with educational theory?

There is a problem that faces us as legal educators. The argument in this blog post is that being able to draw on theory and literature, on the knowledge base of a profession, is central to our conception of being a professional. It allows us to understand the reasons that underpin effective teaching practices and supports our attempt to be reflective practitioners.

Our educational background is in the Law; this subject knowledge is a vital element of our ability to teach Law. Very few of us, however, have engaged systematically with educational theory and literature. For the reasons outlined above, I believe that we need to do so.

In two future blog posts I will make suggestions as to how we can engage with educational theory and literature, on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and reflect on its implications for our teaching and learning practice.


Ashwin, A. Boud, D., Calkins, S, Coate, K., Hallett, F., Light, G., Luckett, K., MacLaren, I., Martensson, K. McArthur, J., McCune, V., McLean, M. and Tooher, M., (2020) Reflective teaching in higher education. (2nd ed), London: Bloomsbury Academic

Carr, W. (2004) “Philosophy and Education.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 38 (1): 55–73

Shulman, L. (1986) Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher. 15 (2), pp. 4 – 14

Winch, C. (2017) Teachers’ know-how: A philosophical investigation. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell

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