ALT conference overview

by Paul Maharg on 07/04/2009

Some very good sessions – of the ones I went to, Paul Catley's work on MCQs and their effect on student learning deserves a mention. Follow his work if you're interested in the use of quizzes, etc. Caroline Maughan's session with Jonathan Tecks on simulation, though I didn't attend it, looked excellent from the paper they produced. Caroline Strevens and Roger Welch produced a very good presentation on simulation and transactional learning. These and some other papers showed groundbreaking work being carried out at a range of institutions.

There was evidence, from one institution, of troubling feedback regarding student learning and achievement (which reminded me of this presentation by Michael Wesch). Theirs was a useful study, in that it should have given management pause for thought over whether to continue with conventional approaches to legal education, or whether something pretty radical was required — at questions I suggested the latter.

In retrospect, two things concerned me about the conference. First was the number of people who turned up for the conference dinner, and whose faces didn't seem to appear at the small-group sessions. We owe it to our students and our own community of practice to put in the hours refining each other's work.

Second, I was concerned about the lack of reference to the educational literature in quite a few of the papers, and not just by staff new to research, or by young staff. I went to two papers on the second day where I don't believe there was a single reference to educational literature. This is unacceptable. One of the papers actually focused on how to teach students research skills and habits – and yet the author had not appreciated the irony of her own work on student study skills apparently having no research context at all. As a community of practice in legal education we need to be aware of the prior evidence base, and absorb its findings in our own research and our working practices.  When I was Chair of BILETA a few years back we had a similar problem, and we found that a relatively light-touch peer-review process was enough to raise the quality of research & presentation. Nobody wants to put up barriers to discussion of innovative or radical bodies of work; but at the same time, we do need to maintain standards in basic research methodologies.

But I don't want to end on a negative note.  I got a lot from the conference, and several of the papers challenged my ideas and made me think pretty hard on the plane home. 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Phil Bates April 23, 2009 at 10:28

I thought it was a marvellous conference too. It was my first ALT conference, after quite a few years teaching law, and it was great to discover a ‘community of practice’.
I have two comments on the lack of references to educational literature. First, being charitable, the format of presenting a conference paper doesn’t always lend itself to ‘showing your working’ through footnotes etc., so the lack of reference to the eductional literature, doesn’t always mean that it hasn’t been considered.
That said, perhaps asking people to produce a written version of their paper (with the footnotes), and subjecting it to refereeing, would be a good thing – both in terms of raising overall quality, and allowing presenters to deliver the written version of the paper at the same time as the presentation. Still, in my mind, the way I ‘write’ a conference presentation feels very different from the way I write an article or book chapter. I hate conference papers which feel like someone summarising an article, and I prefer to hear people ‘thinking aloud’. Parallels here, perhaps, with the discussion of ‘real lectures’.
Secondly, I expect many of us nodded appreciatively during the after-dinner speech which described horrible experiences in ‘how-to-teach’ sessions, which are usually inflicted upon new teachers who may find it difficult to talk back. Interestingly, in most of my previous Universities, I discovered that the law teachers had a reputation for being disruptive. I wonder if this is because we are naturally argumentative, or because we obstinately hold on to out-dated ideas about teaching in the face of educational theory? Perhaps, a bit of both.
Still, one of the reasons why we might resist the insights from the educationalists is that there is sometimes a disconnect between the supposed conclusion of the educational theory, and our own grasp of ‘what works’. The discussion about ‘real lectures’ was a great example of this. We are always being told that ‘lectures are the worst way to teach’, but most of us remember hearing (and maybe even giving) great lectures, and feeling that something would be missing if we got rid of them.
This doesn’t mean that law teachers cannot learn from research on education (either law-specific, or drawn from other areas of education). I think we have an enormous amount to gain from such research, but I think there is a place for conference papers at ALT which draw on the ‘affective domain’ of ‘what works for me’. Which brings us back to our opening session on the role of the affective domain in law teaching, which was indeed a fantastic way to begin the conference (and will be a fantastically useful book too)!
Phil Bates


2 Paul Maharg June 22, 2009 at 13:10

Phil, some really good points here. Re point one, about the referencing issue, I agree with you. In fact these days I nearly always use conference papers as construction yards for ideas, approaches, stuff that I’m still working on, and where I’m building up from the keel, as it were. They’re useful spaces for experimentation, too (one reason why the poster session worked well). But when I’m doing that, I’ll always include a sort of short hand of references to the literature that I’m drawing on, and to which I hope I’m contributing. It kind of gives context to my ideas, shows where I’m coming from, and also is my acknowledgment to the folk who have gone before. Nothing major – a bit like the cartoon that an artist might draw to indicate where figures go, etc. It’s a form of humility: you’re really saying to the audience, ‘these are the people who have influenced me, from whom I’m learning – judge what I’m saying in that context.’ It’s also a conversation with those who have written about the same subject as you, the living and the dead. There’s a passage I must quote in this respect, that catches the whole tenor of the endless conversation:

Imagine that you enter a parlour. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion has already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late. You must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
From Kenneth Burke, ‘The Philosophy of Literary Form’, quoted as epigraph to Graham Allen, Harold Bloom: A Poetics of Conflict (Harvester Wheatsheaf 1994)

Re your second point, about ‘what works for me’, I think that that is so important in the development of anyone as an academic and teacher. There’s a lot of educational literature that has little relevance to field practice; but sometimes when the literature does say something doesn’t or won’t work, and yet one’s experience contradicts this – that point of puzzling contradiction can be the start of new thoughts about educational practice.
Lectures… I’ve been to so many bad ones that I remain sceptical about their value, and certainly about the depressingly high profile they still have in the academy. But I’ve had inspirational lecturers – Joe Thomson being one of them, as I said at that ALT session (and I agree with what Joe said about one characteristic of high-quality lecturing being the lecturer’s vulnerability, an opening-up to the audience). I think what’s most disappointing is the lack of creativity and imagination (too much convoy dissemination of information and naïve activities), not enough exploration of the educational alternatives, particularly the alternatives offered by technology. Of course, some alternatives can be worse – eg ‘hey, let’s just webcast our lectures!’ – with no thought given to social context or presence, the fit between information & technology, techniques of learning, course design, etc.


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