Kris Gledhill, Associate Professor in Law and Director of Clinical Legal Education AUT, has introduced an innovative teaching methodology called experiential learning to senior students. His new course, taught with Human Rights barrister Deborah Manning, has a practical community-based focus and involves the students in “hands on” activities.
For some that is very challenging.
Practical v academic – can v can not
In 1903 George Bernard Shaw wrote “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”
Like a lot of Shaw’s work, they were a couple of sentences calculated to provoke. 113 years later they continue to faithfully fulfill their author’s intention.
The differences between the “cans” and the “can nots” polarize, with protagonists regularly lining up on either side to debate and defend their positions.
In the legal world the, depending on your perspective, “cans” are out in the field – doing it. They practice law with real people, in real life situations with real outcomes.
In the “can nots “corner are the academics whom they say theorize, suppose, examine and pontificate in the safety of their offices. The “can nots”, the “cans” say, will argue that their work is all very meaningful, and that they need the distance to maintain objectivity and for dispassionate analysis. How else could they see what is happening, or gain an overview?
The battle between the practical and the academic is old. Rather than join forces with those on either side AUT Associate Professor Kris Gledhill is advocating the “middle ground”.
There is, he argues, a place in any discipline, vocation or field of study for the “pracademic” – a person whose interests and expertise straddles the practical and academic worlds. The division of the profession, he says, into discrete fields – “cans” or “can nots”, academic or practical, is arbitrary and the divide is ultimately artificial.
At the heart of the changes he’s championing is a method of teaching called experiential learning. As its name implies it’s a system based on experience. Students learn from doing. Their instruction is “hands on” coupled with a reflective requirement. That component asks the student to assess and analyze their own performance against pre-determined aims and objectives.
What is experiential learning?
- Learning by doing
- It gives students opportunity to question, to reflect on their own role, as well as the process they’re involved in
It encourages accepting & taking responsibility
Current NZ teaching practice
Kris says the current standard practice in the majority of New Zealand’s Law Schools is largely didactic. Students come to class; they listen, they read, they debate and mostly they regurgitate what they’ve absorbed through essays and exams. It’s a mode of teaching that as well as favouring the abstract, reinforces the notion that intellectual agility is superior to the creative and challenging business of meeting the world empathetically and effectively. What’s missing, he says, is the humanizing experience of learning and working with real people in real life. Experiential learning provides that. Through reflection students learn to take and accept responsibility for themselves and their actions, and – most importantly in an academic setting – solidify their comprehension of legal doctrine by seeing it in operation.
Practical experience backed with study is what we expect from other professions. Why do we think law is exempt from that? For example –
If I needed brain surgery I’d want to know the person doing the work had done more than be talked at or had successfully memorized a bunch of slides
What’s happening in US law schools
In US law schools experiential learning has been an accepted, and required, mode of instruction for quite some time. There are such courses at Yale, Harvard and Stanford. All of them offer a combination of experiential learning mixed with more traditional models. If it is accepted as a valid teaching method in such places, says Kris, its implementation in New Zealand is probably overdue.
Experiential learning comes to AUT
A community focused elective course for advanced students entitled Clinical Legal Education (Laws776) – which could be renamed as a Social Justice Initiative – is one of the first to be offered and will be jointly taught by Kris and Auckland barrister Deborah Manning, who specializes in human rights law, including refugee and immigration law. It will involve 10 hours of lecture time, around 100 hours of research and reflection and 40 hours of supervised work in a suitable setting – law firms doing social justice work, NGOs or other organizations with a similar focus.
Kris says he’s delighted to work alongside Deborah who for the last 10 years has been running her own experiential learning programme by taking interns into her practice. She is, says Kris, committed to providing high quality supervision and mentoring for those students she accepts, having sought training herself on how to mentor effectively.
The course was originally limited to 48 places but has been expanded because the demand was so high. The aim for the future is to develop additional courses, and particularly those that are cross-disciplinary. Kris is exploring collaborations with colleagues in other disciplines, from business to psychotherapy. Students need to know that the law regulates a variety of areas, he says, and so law students need to understand these areas and students in these areas need to understand the legal framework. The fusion of skills, says Kris, ensures that we all gain, particularly by breaking down ring-fenced or siloed knowledge. That belief is echoed by fellow new AUT Law School staff member Professor of Criminal Law and Justice Studies Warren Brookbanks, who is in the throes of establishing a new Research Centre for Non-Adversarial Justice.
Not a replacement
Kris says learning programmes like the one he is developing are not a replacement for what has gone before. Neither are they to be viewed as a replacement for professionals or in-house training by legal firms. Instead they deepen and expand what is available to students – giving them a full range of options to choose from.
Experiential learning elsewhere in the country
The course Kris and Deborah are running at AUT is part of a growing consciousness that the teaching of law needs to be returned to the society it serves.
They are supported by and closely collaborate with Professor Robin Palmer, Director of Clinical Studies at the University of Canterbury who has been working to establish a similar programme of study in Christchurch.
For more about experiential learning
For more about the Social Justice Initiative
- Click the link to download a pdf of the course outline.
More about Kris Gledhill