Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience
40 Pages Posted: 13 Oct 2017
Date Written: October 12, 2017
In law school, a fear of failure can paralyze students and hinder their learning. Students may not try a new skill or a new argument or even give an answer in class if they are uncertain that they will get it right — or are afraid they will get it wrong. In part, this resistance to and fear of failure is exacerbated by legal education’s focus on outcomes: grades, class rank, and high-paying jobs.
This focus often causes students to be extrinsically motivated and encourages a “fixed mindset,” which contributes deleteriously to the mental health and intellectual curiosity of some law students.
Left unchecked, the fear and shunning of failure does not end in law school. In practice, lawyers who feel pressure to be perfect or to avoid even the appearance of failure are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and stress than peers in other professions or in the general population. Similarly, they are less able to manage the setbacks inherent in practicing within the adversarial system and receiving feedback from supervising attorneys. They also may be less creative in crafting arguments to best represent their clients and may shy away from meritorious yet difficult cases because they do not want to “lose.”
This Article argues that law professors have a responsibility to help law students be effective in their studies and prepare for the intellectual and emotional demands of practice. Like other skills that we teach, we can teach our students to react to failure with a “growth mindset” and resilience and help them to engage even when something is difficult. To that end, this Article identifies and suggests a tiered set of techniques for any legal classroom aimed at helping our students cultivate growth mindsets and habits of resilience. Specifically, this Article provides a way of teaching — what I call a “failure pedagogy” — that professors can incorporate in their curricula easily to create a safe space for failure; use growth language in their feedback; and help students analyze, anticipate, and prevent failures. Together, these techniques are designed to help the students of today be more effective and engaged lawyers tomorrow.
Keywords: failure, growth mindset, resilience, pedagogy, legal education, failure pedagogy, teaching, failure framework
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