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Practice-Based Learning: Emphasizing Practice and Offering Critical Perspectives on the Dangers of 'Co-Op'tation

Posted: 19 Sep 2012 Last revised: 1 Jan 2013

Brook K. Baker

Northeastern University - School of Law

Date Written: September 18, 2012


Although there is little doubt that law schools do an excellent job of turning law school applicants into classroom students and beginning the process of cognitive and role acculturation, contextualized practice does an infinitely better job of inculcating the understandings, skills, and dispositions that comprise competence in the real world, be it a job, a profession, or a service activity. Likewise, although there may be a useful synergy or complementarity between the classroom and practice, that mutual reinforcement occurs only if practice is placed in the foreground. In reaching this conclusion that performance activities in actual practice settings are crucial to ecological learning, I draw principal support from researchers who propose that apprenticeship-like experiences are a cornerstone of effective learning even during formal schooling.

Since 1993, I have had three perspectives on practice-based learning. First, that student-centered learning is more important than educator-centered teaching and thus, that it is critical to explore recent cognitive research about humans’ interactive engagement with the world and about the cognitive legacies of that engagement, what we call learning. Second, that learning should be relatively “self”-directed and identity focused — that university students, as maturing human beings, most of them poised between the play and educational regimes of childhood and the social roles and responsibilities of adulthood, are searching for increased autonomy, identity, and self-realization — a new sense of self, of self-reliance, and of personal competence. Third, that learning is primarily social, not solo. It is not something that occurs just in the head but that it arises out of social practice, out of coordinated action within a community of mentors and peers that is organized to provide vertical and lateral support to new members as they jointly undertake the authentic activities of their practice domain.

In this article, I explore more critical perspectives on practice-based learning starting with concerns about the satisficing lessons of practice and the sub-standard guidance of certain workplace supervisors — a danger of all-too-easy fitting in that I call “co-op”tation. While the article reviews and challenges over-wrought claims about the superiority of clinical and classroom based pedagogies of critical reflexivity, it proposes that the typical subconscious and conscious cognitive habits of reflecting on practice during practice should be supplemented with school-based opportunities to reflect upon and critique the students’ experiences with the legal system and the forms of legal practice to which they have been exposed. The article concludes with a call to action for legal educators. We have an ethical, moral, and educational duty to encourage our students to maintain a critical perspective on their process of acculturation before, during, and after their practice-based experiences. We should help them explore forms of accommodation and resistance to legal practice that nurture their commitment to progressive law reform and their ability to engage constructively in needed social change.

Suggested Citation

Baker, Brook K., Practice-Based Learning: Emphasizing Practice and Offering Critical Perspectives on the Dangers of 'Co-Op'tation (September 18, 2012). New York Law School Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 2, pp. 619-657, 2011-2012; Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper No. 109-2012; NYLS Clinical Research Institute Paper No. 23/2012. Available at SSRN:

Brook K. Baker (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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