Developmental Learning Theory in the First Year: From Regression to Progression

14 Pages Posted: 25 May 2008

See all articles by Steven D. Schwinn

Steven D. Schwinn

John Marshall Law School (Chicago)

Date Written: May 23, 2008


The traditional first-year curriculum in American law schools takes incoming law students as novice or dualistic thinkers, in the nomenclature of developmental learning theorists. Thus the traditional first-year curriculum emphasizes the determinate nature of law and practice, and the role of authority in the law, just to name two features. But while our incoming students may, in fact, be novices in the law, they are increasingly sophisticated thinkers in other areas of their lives and in their moral reasoning abilities. They can deal with indeterminacy, and they can be agents of development (not merely recipients of knowledge), outside the law. Moreover, they can apply these capabilities to their legal studies. In treating first-year students as novices, the traditional legal curriculum neglects these capabilities. Worse, it regresses first-year students as thinkers and as moral reasoners on conventional developmental continua. In contrast to the traditional curriculum, actual legal work in the first year - where students take responsibility for actual legal work, with all its attendant indeterminacies - builds upon the capabilities that our students bring to law school and thus promotes their intellectual development, their ethical reasoning skills, and their development as professionals.

Keywords: law school, curriculum, learning theory, clinic

JEL Classification: I20, I21

Suggested Citation

Schwinn, Steven D., Developmental Learning Theory in the First Year: From Regression to Progression (May 23, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Steven D. Schwinn (Contact Author)

John Marshall Law School (Chicago) ( email )

315 South Plymouth Court
Chicago, IL 60604
United States
312.386.2865 (Phone)

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