Climbing Bloom’s Stairway: The Case of Kevin Brooks

Arie-Jan Kwak

We need to talk about Kevin. I am not referring to the 2011 movie by Lynne Ramsay but to Kevin Brooks, one of the main figures in The Paper Chase. This successful film by James Bridges, followed by an even more successful television series, was based on a novel by Jay Osborn jr., a novel he wrote when he was a student at Harvard Law school. Especially Professor Kingsfield, a Oscar-winning role by John Houseman, makes a lasting impression. As he explains in the first class of the year Kingsfield teaches contract law using the ‘Socratic method’, and the class-room interrogations by Kingsfield are among the most powerful scenes in this classic movie. Kevin Brooks is one of the first year law students in Kingsfield’s class, his story is a particularly tragic one.

Soon after school starts Kevin Brooks joins a study group. The participators divide the subjects among each other to make summaries, and they discuss the various topics, all to prepare for the exams at the end of the academic year. Although he works very hard, things are not going well for Kevin, and during the year he gets more and more nervous. Kevin is under is under a lot of pressure: his wife is expecting a baby, and his wealthy father in law pays for his education, so failure is no option. However, he flunks all the practice exams. Furthermore, Kevin also fails to finish and share the outlines assigned to him, repeatedly claiming that they are almost ready. Just before the final exams Kevin collapses and does an attempt at suicide. The attempt is unsuccessful but it does spell the end of his time at Harvard. When he is gone, his fellow-students discover that the promised outlines are non-existent.

We are given hints at what is wrong with Kevin, at why he fails in law school. In an especially engaging class-room scene Kevin is interrogated by Kingsfield and, in an effort to divert the attention from the fact that he does not know the answer to Kingfield’s questions, Kevin tells the professor that he has a photographic memory. Kevin seems to be rather proud of this ability, but Kingsfield is not impressed: “A photographic memory is of absolutely no use to you Mr. Brooks without the ability to analyze that vast mass of facts between your ears.” Kingsfield’s remark is spot on, the ability to analyze seems to be exactly what Kevin lacks. Indeed, he may able to produce the right ‘photo’ at the right moment and, so to speak, read it aloud, but he is unable to truly understand, let alone analyze, this picture before his mind’s eye. His knowledge is therefore very literal and (therefore) highly superficial.

One is reminded of a scene in another movie. In Rain Main (1988) Dustin Hoffman plays what is sometimes called an idiot-savant: a severely autistic man who is at the same time incredibly knowledgeable on a certain subjects. His younger brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) takes Raymond on a tour but Charlie loses sight of Raymond in the middle of a town somewhere. Raymond walks around alone and decides to cross the street at a pedestrian crossing. When he is halfway the light changes from ‘walk’ to ‘don’t walk’. Raymond may be autistic but he knows how to read and therefore stops walking in the middle of the street. When the light turns green for the cars that are waiting for the crossing, the drivers are confronted with a man standing in front of the row of cars staring at a traffic light. Before things really get out of hand, Charlie finds his brother and pushes him of the crossing on to the pavement. It said don’t walk, Raymond says, it said don’t walk.

Kevin and Raymond can read, but they don’t seem to truly understand. You do not get into Harvard law school when you are severely autistic of course, but on a different level the problem seems very similar: they both remain stuck at the first step of Bloom’s famous pyramid. They are able to reproduce the literal phrases they see or hear – indeed Raymond’s knowledge on certain subjects is mind blowing – and they understand its literal meaning, but they are both somehow unable to read between the lines.

We all know that when you are in the middle of the crossing ‘don’t walk’ means ‘run’! Everybody who sees the bigger picture here, and everybody who knows the purpose these traffic lights serve in the larger context of traffic regulation and policies, understands this. This is the second step on Bloom’s pyramidal ‘stairway’: understanding. Both Kevin and Raymond fail to truly understand what they are dealing with; and that is also exactly why Kevin is unable to produce the outlines he promised. Kevin is unable to relate the bits and pieces of information in his head to a bigger picture; a bigger picture which includes the general purposes, values and policies that are served by the law. Only such an understanding of such purposes can help to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant aspects of a case. Poor Kevin. He cannot distinguish the incidental from the essential, every detail seems equally important to him.

The Paper Chase scenes illustrate that understanding requires the ability to locate a particular bit of information in a larger context of general knowledge and experience. And if you do not see the purpose of it all, the use of the information offered, there is not a chance that you are able to apply the knowledge (the third step on Bloom’s pyramidal stairs) or “to analyze that vast mass of facts between your ears” (Bloom’s fourth step) which is, of course, an essential legal skill. Kingsfield prides himself in teaching exactly this. “You come in here with a skull full of mush, and you leave thinking like a lawyer,” he tells his students during their first day at law school. The Socratic method (or ‘case method’) is supposed to help the student climb the stairs from mere learning by rote and reproduction to the analysis of the legal materials. Whether Kingsfield truly succeeds in this is another matter, but his Socratic teaching style makes very good television indeed.

Engaging Students: Bridging the gap between abstract law and concrete life events

Bald de Vries

Imagining, hesitating, memorising through metaphors 

One thing that strikes me as a lecturer in law, is the distance between the abstract law and real-life events. Usually we present students with a set of facts, from which they have to distill the legal issue, translated into a question which they seek to answer based upon the law they study in the given course, be it contract law, administrative law or criminal law.

For students, the case study method, although based on facts, makes the law an abstract entity. There is a distance, indeed, and students merely engage in the legal analysis, not concerned with the correlation of law and life. We do not train students to bridge this gap and create in them a sense of empathy and ethical awareness when they engage in addressing legal questions. I say this, as law and legal problems stem from or based in real life trauma, of all sorts, chilling events.

It is this what struck me at the joined meeting of the Dutch Socio-Legal Studies Association and the Dutch Association for the Philosophy of Law, held on Friday 3 November in Utrecht. The theme of this meeting was in exploring new perspectives on active learning and teaching in legal education, from the perspective of jurisprudence and socio-legal studies.

The background to organising the theme is that the field of legal education is changing. On the one hand we see the development of new ‘supra’ legal programmes, in which law is combined with other disciplines, like economy, politics, philosophy and the like. On the other hand, we see new kinds of courses in existing programmes, such as courses like ‘law, society and justice’, or courses such as ‘perspectives on law’ and ‘ law and human behaviour’.

But what is striking, in my opinion, is that these developments see the study of law as instrumental and outward-looking, geared towards preparing students for practicing the law as an abstract entity. But this is insufficient. There is in inward looking aspect of the study of law. Indeed, these developments pose a variety of questions, pertaining to the status of ‘traditional’ jurisprudence and sociology of law courses. How can we engage students in thinking about the law fundamentally, both philosophically and sociologically? How to bridge the distance between the (perceived) abstract nature our disciplines and the imagination of our students?

Maksymilian del Mar addressed this fundamental question in a fundamental way, in his keynote address, setting the scene for the day. He stressed the importance of using metaphors and artefacts in order to allow the suspension of judgment. It enables, first, to submerge in the facts of a case and, second, to confront one’s prejudices and assumptions. This reflexivity strengthens, in the end, the legal judgment of students, as they realise the impact of law and the facts beneath it. It enables them to live the scenario the parties (real people) actually experienced.

This message translated in a variety of workshops in which lecturers showed how to engage and challenge students in thinking about law. Our Turkish guest lecturer, for example, confronts students with their prejudices about detainees in bringing them into contact with them. She uses the metaphor of the mirror first, challenging them to inspect what they see and don't see in the mirror, before confronting them with prisoners - teaching them both. The task is to explore to see the person and consider whether justice is done, or not. In other words, what Gülriz Uygur points to is the importance of ethical responsibility and the ability to emphatise.

In a way, Uygur’s point relates to the importance of observation and imagination. Law has an impact on social life and social life has an impact on law. Our students should be aware, already in their studies, that they carry responsibility - that they will be engaged in making decisions that impact upon the lives of people. Our type of courses can open up our students and contribute to the inward looking aspect of studying law, call it Bildung.

Engagement and the Future of Legal Education

Bald de Vries

On 14 and 15 November last year, the Law Schools of LERU (League of European Research Universities) organised a workshop on the future of legal education, in Lund (Sweden). The two-day workshop was hosted by the law school of Lund University and we were welcomed by its Dean, Mia Rönnmar, and Oran Doyle (Trinity College Dublin), who initiated the workshop. The central theme of the workshop was how to engage students in legal education and prepare them for professional practice in the future. Some fifty colleagues participated and were involved in about fourteen presentation in which best practices, new ideas and past experiences were shared in a constructive critical fashion.

In this blog, I reflect on some of the themes the presentations shared and consider some issues at stake in the future of legal education. (In doing so, I have chosen, for clarity of reading, not to refer to the presenters and the titles of the presentations.) The main theme which surfaced in most presentations was how to engage students to study law in a more meaningful way and what this demands for legal education, now and in the future.

Engaging Students – the Introduction

It was appropriate that the first presentation addressed the theme how we introduce new students to law and legal education. Usually, there is some kind of introduction week that tends to be characterized by a lot of information transfer of a practical nature, acquaintance with fellow students, lecturers, tutors and buildings as well as by social events. In a way, such an introductory period is the first step in the process of socialisation. Indeed, it is an important first step for students in academic life. What we tend to ignore is that students are fully unaware what it is to study and what it is to study law. This presentation begged the question to what extent we should challenge students in those first weeks with getting acquainted with meta-cognitive skills – learning how to learn and learning how to study law. A thought that struck me later was that the start of their academic career is also the start of, in a way, specialisation. Most students have finished their secondary education, consisting of a variety of different disciplines and now start on a monodisciplinary adventure – in our case: law.

Engaging Students – Living the Law

This last theme was picked up on that first day, enquiring into the transitional phase towards university life. As law is by nature a textual discipline, students need to learn (paradoxically) how to read, how to write and how to express themselves as lawyers. To this end, a toolbox was introduced consisting of reading strategies, differentiating between different legal texts – case law, legislation, contracts, etc. while stressing the importance to understand the context of a text and for students to identify for what reason or purpose to read a text, by imagining to be its author: a legislator, judge, legal advisor, etc.

Engaging students also implies challenging students to “live the law”. Considering the relatively small amount of contact hours in legal education, students tend to study in a fragmented way – a lecture here and a workshop there, prepared or not. Using blended learning and a clever spread of contact hours during an education week, another presentation reported on how digital tools (a course-specific digital learning environment) could function as a bridge to connect the physical contact hours during an education week in a course, in which students had to engage with the course every day of the week, online and offline.

In a more unconventional way, two other presentations introduced novel ways of studying law. The first emphasised the importance of play and playfulness in legal education. Being playful is a light-hearted state of mind and is associated with curiosity, creativity, spontaneity and humour. Being playful also entails being able to cope with uncertainty. The integration of these states of minds in law courses, as the presentation showed, allows for creativity and imagination when engaging with legal problems.

The other presentation introduced the concept of constraints-led learning in legal education. This pedagogical concept employs methods used in physical training, guiding athletes in motor skills acquisition. The approach focuses on designing assignments such that athletes independently come to solutions of motor problems, while minimizing verbal cues from coaches. Empirical evidence is mounting that the constraints-led approach leads to more efficient skill acquisition and better performance of athletes in high-pressure settings. The presentation demonstrated examples of constraints-led teaching for law students, while exploring the (dis)advantages of this approach in knowledge and skill acquisition.

Students tend to be exam orientated when they study, looking beyond the normal educational week towards the final assessment. This inhibits them to engage with law meaningfully. We are “to blame” for this, as we decide on the type of assessment. One presentation showed how changes in the curriculum opened up the way for many different types of assessment, such as response papers, case notes, take home exams, reflective learning assignments, online discussion boards and blog posts. Indeed, one other presentation reported on an educational experiment, using blog posts as a means of learning. It is meaningful, as students not merely write a blog as an exercise in writing but write a blog that is actually published for the benefit of a wider public audience. To realise as a student that your work is published and read by unknown creates ownership and responsibility.

Engaging Students: (Transferrable) Skills

When we teach law, we aspire to introduce students to the law, disclosing its concepts, goals and function, deliberating on important notions such as legal certainty and equality, justice, liability, rules of fair competition, mens rea, etc. Law is about learning principles and concepts, but to do so meaningfully, requires an active learning approach.

Engaging with law means challenging students to submerse themselves into law and one important way of achieving this is emphasising the importance of writing and reading skills: the ability to understand and express (legal) thoughts in text. Some of the presentations focused on this type of skills education, emphasising legal craftsmanship, critical writing skills and argumen-tation skills. Its importance cannot be over-emphasized as these types of skills teach students to develop their own autonomous voice as lawyers, being able to engage with other professionals to find solutions for societal problems. It asks for creativity for us as lecturers, also considering the limited amount of contact hours and other constraints. Feedback is effective, as shown in one presentation, when it is an in-class activity. Another presentation showed how to integrate argumentation theory in writing skills assignments. It allows students to understand and recognise the importance of argumentation structures, structures like modus tollens and modus ponens as well as logical fallacies.

In addition, a number of other presentations showed the importance of transferable skills and how these connect to the idea of interdisciplinarity in legal education. Indeed, one important question is to what extent the professional field should be (more) involved in opening up for students a wide range of transferrable skills, over and beyond the traditional legal skills. The follow-up question relates to the professional field itself, which is and will be much broader than the legal professional field, where legal professionals have to communicate and cooperate with professionals from other disciplines, such as economics and governance. How to start up an innovative legal practice is perhaps also something we as law schools must pay attention to, as shown by one presentation.

Engaging Students: Diversity and Outreach

The population of law students tends to be quite homogenous. For a variety of reasons, it seems difficult to reach out to groups of secondary school students to enter academic life and in particular the law school. It is important to remove real and perceived obstacles for these groups to enter academic life – for these students themselves as well as for the future of law, considering its societal function. One presentation reported on how a law school developed an online programme meant to entice students to get acquainted with (legal) education, which would allow them to enter university without going through the usual selection and registration procedure. This programme was specifically targeted to groups of students who would typically not choose an academic career although they would well able to, intellectually. Another presentation emphasized that diversity and inclusivity is not only an issue to diversify the student population but should also be part of the legal curriculum. Through a critical analysis of case law, the focus in one course on human rights was the way that cultural diversity has influenced the interpretation and implementation of human rights.

The Future of Legal Education

The legal landscape is changing dramatically and the professional field will ask for a different type of law graduate. Processes like digitalisation provide challenges as they generate new legal questions and, perhaps more important, will impact on law itself. One presentation posed the question to what extent new complex techno enable phenomena be subsumed into existing laws and regulations (and how)?

Furthermore, the keynote address – by professor Burkhard Schafer – pointed to the idea to what extent legal work will be digitally outsourced and, hence, lawyers could be replaced by computers? This implies not only technical issues but, more importantly, normative questions as to the role of law and of human decision making. One approach, as sketched in his presentation, is to figure out where we, as humans, beat machines, for example in respect of creative endeavours and social interactions and identify legal skills that are least likely to be substitutable by machine intelligence. Knowing this opens up the possibility to redesign the law curriculum around them. Indeed, redesigning legal education was the topic of one other presentation, introducing the idea of the Temple-shaped lawyer (as opposed to the T-shaped lawyer), introducing the mnemonic phrase of the homo faber, considering the lawyer as an artesan, an entrepreneur and as a caretaker.

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The search continues and what struck me were the normative questions that popped up when discussing legal education within this wide variety of presentations and topics. This normative aspect of legal education is the theme of the upcoming special workshop at the IVR World Congress in Luzern, Switzerland. In this workshop, we seek to explore the challenges legal education is facing and explore ways to rethink the (normative) foundations of academic legal education and to reflect on its aims, content and pedagogy. Email Bald de Vries – u.devries@uu.nl – if you are interested to participate in the workshop.