Principle 2: Good Practice Encourages Cooperation Among Students
Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 49, pp. 386-400, 1999
15 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2010
Date Written: February 10, 2010
“Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort than a solo race. Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one's own ideas and responding to others' reactions improves thinking and deepens understanding.” (Arthur W. Chickering & Zelda F. Gamson, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, 1987).
Cooperative learning enriches traditional law school education – a solitary pursuit of legal knowledge – with a culturally based, highly relational exploration of course material. It stretches the shrunken persona of the typical law student into the many evolving and “intersectional” public roles that are present in each student. Why is it so important that we draw out and take educational advantage of students' multifaceted characters? Because future clients of these budding attorneys – not to mention judges, opposing counsel, jurors, and others – deserve legal services seasoned by structured law school simulation of attorney interaction within the legal system and the public at large. Cooperative learning supplies the necessary experiences so that the newly minted lawyer can say, with at least some degree of truth, “Been there, done that.”
A learning community's exploration of personae during the years of legal study accomplishes three principal objectives: academic excellence, professional skill development, and public service.
Before we turn our attention to these objectives of cooperative learning and consider instructional models to achieve them, it is important to address law students' likely reservations, if not skepticism, about collaborative education. A learning community adds new roles. It does not place any less emphasis on sustained individual effort; it recognizes that the practice of law demands solitary discipline. Cooperative learning and the competition-driven model, pitting students against each other for the highest grade, are not mutually exclusive. Both learning processes teach lessons and skills that are vital to the repertoire of an effective lawyer. Rather than put students on the defensive by presenting cooperative learning as the only legitimate approach to legal education or even the best approach, we begin by affirming the scholastic discipline that has brought them this far and then invite them to experiment with a supplemental learning method.
Next, we need to provide an incentive for students to apply themselves conscientiously to a novel educational process. Since the idea of team academic growth and shared professional development may be foreign or unappealing, students need to see learning communities as a means of getting a better return on their tuition dollar today and a better job tomorrow. To this end, we explain that group assignments are structured so that students tighten their grasp on academic material while sharpening their professional skills. Cooperative learning tests their ability to interact effectively in various roles – e.g., client, advocate, juror, judge – so that they will know how best to use their legal expertise and lawyering skills when a real client is paying the bills. Students are motivated to exert their best effort in cooperative learning when they see that to do so increases professional satisfaction as well as marketability and career options.
Keywords: Cooperative learning, academic excellence, professional skill development, public service, legal education
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