May 02, 2006

About SAGES -3: The difficult task of changing education

It is a natural human trait to confuse 'is' with 'ought,' to think that what currently exists is also how things should be, especially with long-standing practices. The same is true with teaching methods. Once a way of teaching reaches a venerable stage, it is hard to conceive that things could be any different.

This post will be largely excerpts of an excellent article titled Making the Case by David A. Garvin from the September-October 2003, Volume 106, Number 1 issue of Harvard Magazine (p. 56), showing how hard it is to change the way we teach. It gives as an example the way that legal education changed to what it is today, what is now called the case method. Although this has become the 'standard' way law colleges operate, initial efforts to introduce this method faced enormous resistance from students and faculty and alumni. This is because all of us tend to be most comfortable with doing what we have always done and fear that change will be for the worse.

The article suggests that to succeed, the changes must be based on a deep understanding of education and require support and commitment over the long haul.

Christopher Columbus Langdell, the pioneer of the case method, attended Harvard Law School from 1851 to 1854 - twice the usual term of study. He spent his extra time as a research assistant and librarian, holed up in the school's library reading legal decisions and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of court cases. Langdell's career as a trial lawyer was undistinguished; his primary skill was researching and writing briefs. In 1870, Harvard president Charles William Eliot appointed Langdell, who had impressed him during a chance meeting when they were both students, as professor and then dean of the law school. Langdell immediately set about developing the case method.

At the time, law was taught by the Dwight Method, a combination of lecture, recitation, and drill named after a professor at Columbia. Students prepared for class by reading "treatises," dense textbooks that interpreted the law and summarized the best thinking in the field. They were then tested - orally and in front of their peers - on their level of memorization and recall. Much of the real learning came later, during apprenticeships and on-the-job instruction.

Langdell's approach was completely different. In his course on contracts, he insisted that students read only original sources - cases - and draw their own conclusions. To assist them, he assembled a set of cases and published them, with only a brief two-page introduction.

Langdell's approach was much influenced by the then-prevailing inductive empiricism. He believed that lawyers, like scientists, worked with a deep understanding of a few core theories or principles; that understanding, in turn, was best developed via induction from a review of those appellate court decisions in which the principles first took tangible form. State laws might vary, but as long as lawyers understood the principles on which they were based, they should be able to practice anywhere. In Langdell's words: "To have a mastery of these [principles or doctrines] as to be able to apply them with consistent facility and certainty to the ever-tangled skein of human affairs, is what constitutes a true lawyer…."

This view of the law shifted the locus of learning from law offices to the library. Craft skills and hands-on experience were far less important than a mastery of principles - the basis for deep, theoretical understanding
. . .
This view of the law also required a new approach to pedagogy. Inducing general principles from a small selection of cases was a challenging task, and students were unlikely to succeed without help. To guide them, Langdell developed through trial and error what is now called the Socratic method: an interrogatory style in which instructors question students closely about the facts of the case, the points at issue, judicial reasoning, underlying doctrines and principles, and comparisons with other cases. Students prepare for class knowing that they will have to do more than simply parrot back material they have memorized from lectures or textbooks; they will have to present their own interpretations and analysis, and face detailed follow-up questions from the instructor.

Langdell's innovations initially met with enormous resistance. Many students were outraged. During the first three years of his administration, as word spread of Harvard's new approach to legal education, enrollment at the school dropped from 165 to 117 students, leading Boston University to start a law school of its own. Alumni were in open revolt.

With Eliot's backing, Langdell endured, remaining dean until 1895. By that time, the case method was firmly established at Harvard and six other law schools. Only in the late 1890s and early 1900s, as Chicago, Columbia, Yale, and other elite law schools warmed to the case method - and as Louis Brandeis and other successful Langdell students began to speak glowingly of their law-school experiences - did it diffuse more widely. By 1920, the case method had become the dominant form of legal education. It remains so today.

What we see being tried in SAGES has interesting parallels with what Langdell was trying to achieve. The idea is for students, rather than being the recipients of the distilled wisdom of experts and teachers and told directly what they should know, to study something in depth and to inductively argue their way to an understanding of basic but general principles. The Socratic format of the instructor interrogating students is not used in SAGES, replaced by the somewhat more gentle method of having peer discussions mediated by the instructor.

Taking a long view of past educational changes enables us to keep a sense of proportion. The way we teach now may seem natural and even the only way but usually when we look back it was deliberately introduced, often over considerable opposition, because of some developments in understanding of the nature of learning. As time goes by and our understanding of the learning process changes and deepens, it is natural to re-examine the way we teach as well.

I believe that SAGES takes advantage of what we understand now to be important new insights into learning. But we need to give it a chance to take root. Abandoning it at the first sign of difficulty is absurd because all innovations invariably run into difficulty at the beginning as everyone struggles to adapt to the new ways.

POST SCRIPT: 'Mission Accomplished' by the numbers

As usual, I am tardy in my recognition of anniversaries. But here is a sobering reminder of what has transpired since the infamous photo-op three years ago yesterday on the aircraft carrier.


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There is a certain advantage to having the inertia that currently exists in systems like these. While it makes effecting a quick transition difficult, it forces a certain amount of perseverance in order to implement a change in an established method. This also has the advantage of halting the rise of a "fad" in educational philosophy (or other things for that matter). It's the same kind of inertia that sorts out effective management strategies from ineffective, yet temporarily popular ones. Lean manufacturing really caught on after a while, even though it was slow going at first, other management theories have come and gone.

So, I agree with a lot of what you say. I think SAGES is a great idea from a fundamental standpoint. I have no direct experience with the program, though, and can't comment on the effectiveness of its implementation, but I do know several younger undergrads who dislike the program quite a bit. In part, I think its because of the points you raise regarding inertia; the students aren't used to this style of education and resist it. I also wonder, though, if perhaps some of the details of implementation have been promoting this negative experience among the student body.

To be a little bit cynical, it wouldn't surprise if that were a significant contributing factor to student dissatisfaction with the SAGES program. There are many staff and faculty at Case that I have confidence in to be effective educators; there are many more that I do not have such confidence in. The greater balance of the latter, has given me a bit of a negative tinge on the ability of Case as an institution to effectively implement these kinds of educational changes for the better.

Posted by Jim Eastman on May 4, 2006 10:53 AM

I agree with Jim.

Much of the negative experiences that I have heard about from Case students seem to stem more from inadequate instructors than an inherent problem with the program.

I am reminded of my experiences with Case's math department. In the three semesters of math I took at Case (Calc 2 and 3, plus DiffEQ), I did not once have what I would consider to be a "good" math teacher. Most of my and my classmates' teachers were barely adequate (it's fortunate I liked math enough to study on my own), but the majority could barely relate to the students, let alone communicate the material well enough for a less-than-incredibly-motivated student to grasp.

Posted by Liz V on May 4, 2006 12:42 PM

I am not sure that the faculty at Case are any worse at making this transition than faculty at other research universities. But I think there definitely does need to be greater realization by them that they need to prepare more in order to make the changes that are needed to make the seminar experience rewarding for them and the students.

Posted by Mano Singham on May 5, 2006 11:41 AM

Not all professors are good teachers, even when their intentions are good. There are many skills to being a professor, chief among which appears to be the ability to generate grant money / research / get published. Second comes mentoring one's own grad students, and wayyy down on the totem pole is teaching undergrads. Maybe not all departments are like this, and maybe my view is skewed, but when I was a grad student I was surprised to see how the professors were spending their time (hint: mostly not paying attention to undergrads). Most professors don't have the first clue on how people learn. And thus it doesn't surprise me that they don't run good classes when not given a particular curriculum.

Posted by Shruti on May 5, 2006 12:06 PM

It may be difficult but you have triggered wonderful starts here and people will support you with these... I interviewed a wonderful leader today -- who is making a hige difference as well -- thanks for your ideas. I hope you continue to add practical stragegies that can be done to make the difference you speak of here...

Posted by ellenweber on May 8, 2006 08:03 PM