The professional development of legal educators
by Prof. Michael Lower, Associate Professor of Practice in Law, CUHK LAW
In a previous blog post I argued that teaching, including teaching in higher education is a profession. The conception of teacher professionalism that I argued for demands that we, as teachers, can give reasons for our teaching practices.
Drawing on Shulman’s explanation of the teacher’s professional knowledge base (Shulman, 1986) I argued that reflection on practice is improved when it is supported by engagement with educational theory and the educational research literature.
This raises an important difficulty, however, since relatively few higher education teachers have been formally trained in educational theory or educational research designs and methods.
In this, the second of three blog posts on the professional knowledge of higher education teachers, I want to make some suggestions as to how this difficulty can be addressed.
Teaching and learning presentations / cases would be strengthened by an engagement with theory
Universities, Faculties and departments frequently organise seminars and other events to discuss teaching and learning practices and innovations. CUHK Law has been organising seminars since 2014. Since 2016, CUHK Law has organised a biennial Directions in Legal Education conference where legal educators from around the world meet to share their legal education practices and innovations.
CLEAR, CUHK’s Centre for Learning Enhancement and Research, organises an annual Teaching and Learning Innovation Expo
In the United Kingdom, the Association of Law Teachers organises an annual conference. Its Connecting Legal Education group offers frequent online seminars.
These are all excellent opportunities to participate in discussions and presentations about legal education or higher education in general. Participants share practices and ideas for colleagues to reflect on and make use of.
These knowledge-sharing arrangements could be made more valuable if the descriptions of innovative practices were rooted in educational theory. Descriptions of practice would then be located in a framework of general principles shared by all.
For this to work both those who present the case and those to whom it is presented would need an induction into educational theory. This would be consistent with Shulman’s call for ‘the development of a case literature whose organization and use will be profoundly and self-consciously theoretical’ (Shulman, 1986: 11).
Ways of supporting engagement with theory
Sharing of teaching practices, then, could be combined with introductions to theory. Participants could be helped to reflect on their teaching practices and potential innovations in the light of the theories to which they are introduced.
This approach would help participants to practice using theory to understand the reasons for their practices and to suggest ways in which they could make incremental improvements in their teaching practices.
Teaching and learning units could create courses (including Diploma and Degree programmes) that offer those interested the opportunity to learn more about educational theory and educational research practices.
Courses could support academics as they prepare to apply for one of the Advance HE Fellowships. These demand some engagement with theory to support reflection on practice and can be a launchpad for a longer-term commitment to critical reflection on professional practice.
Legal Education Practicum at CUHK Law
PhD students at CUHK Law participate in a Legal Education Practicum spanning two terms (36 weeks). Students are introduced to educational theory and the principles of effective teaching and learning (drawing on Ashwin et al (2020)). They are introduced to the whole life cycle of a course from planning, through implementation, assessment, gathering feedback and acting on it.
Students are helped to see how intended learning outcomes link teaching and learning activities with assessment. They also come to see something of the relevant policy frameworks and how these shape teaching and learning. Students are introduced to a range of pedagogies such as the flipped classroom, problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning.
Students are required to give a teaching demonstration and a presentation about a chosen pedagogy and to write a coursework about the pedagogy they have chosen. In the second term, the students shadow a member of academic staff as they deliver a course and write a further coursework about this experience.
The course then combines theory and practice and encourages students to become reflective teachers in higher education. It can, of course, only be a starting point for an endeavour that should be sustained over an entire career.
It would be possible for teaching and learning units, Faculties and Departments to develop courses like this that are available to all academics whatever their career stage and adapted to their needs.
Ashwin, P. et al (2020) Reflective teaching in higher education. (2nd ed). London: Bloomsbury Publishing
Shulman, L. (1986) Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher. 15 (2), pp. 4 – 14