Developmental Learning Theory and the American Law School Curriculum

John Marshall Law Journal, Vol. 3, p. 33, 2009

18 Pages Posted: 17 Aug 2011

See all articles by Steven D. Schwinn

Steven D. Schwinn

John Marshall Law School (Chicago)

Date Written: August 16, 2011


We in legal education correctly assume that our incoming students come to us as novice legal thinkers. But it’s also true that our students increasingly come to us with mature intellectual and moral reasoning capabilities in other areas of their lives. Our incoming students might apply these more mature reasoning capabilities to their study of the law, but we don’t let them. Instead, our first-year curriculum binds them in a counter-productive learning process.

This essay begins with a review of some of the intellectual and moral developmental theories as they relate to legal pedagogy. The essay then examines the typical first-year curriculum and attempts to place it in the context of those theories. I argue that the typical first-year curriculum moves students backwards before it moves them forward in the intellectual and moral development progression – that it regresses them before it progresses them, and that this is not just a waste of time, but that it is positively destructive. Finally, I offer an alternative or complementary approach to the typical first-year curriculum – actual legal work in the first year – that is designed to progress, not regress, students as intellectual and moral thinkers.

Keywords: legal, education, developmental, learning, theory, clinic

Suggested Citation

Schwinn, Steven D., Developmental Learning Theory and the American Law School Curriculum (August 16, 2011). John Marshall Law Journal, Vol. 3, p. 33, 2009, Available at SSRN:

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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