CLE15: Ethics in Action (PH)

by Pamela Henderson on 20/06/2015

Full Title – Ethics in Action: Two PBL workshop sessions demonstrating the innovative way legal education can be delivered to enhance students’ consideration of access to justice issues.

Our speaker is Jenny Gibbons who is a teaching fellow at York Law School, where guided-discovery PBL (as opposed to open-discovery) is the standard approach across their LLB particularly in the early years, though some of the scaffolding of guided-discovery is gradually removed as students progress.  They take in around 160 students into the first year, each year.  Jenny feels this smaller number is beneficial to their teaching model, especially the collegiate nature of it.  York has implemented PBL in the belief that students should learn the law in a realistic context, making it more relevant for them and supporting them in achieving a deeper understanding of legal rules and how they work.

Foundation modules are not compartmentalised, so legal problems are set in the mixed context in which they might naturally occur in real life.  For example, a problem might combine issues relating to both public law and crime.  They teach in ‘socially engineered’ law firms, with clear parameters and support for issues outside of pure academic study e.g. what do you do if one member of the firm is not pulling their weight.  There is a focus on social learning systems, with theory and pedagogy at the heart of the school’s model of education.

Professionalism & Ethics is a compulsory second year module, also taught via PBL.  At present it is a stand-alone module, although Jenny says there is dialogue ongoing around whether they should embed it into other modules.  It is, in any event, complemented by the Clinical Legal Education module, so there is a natural flow between these modules.  The Clinic is an optional module, however, with around 35 – 40 students taking it at present, and Jenny would prefer it to be wider and incorporate more students, but of course there are always resource issues:  manpower, case issues etc.  They aim for each student to see two cases during the module, which runs on a ‘short fat’ basis.

At undergraduate level, they look at Professionalism & Ethics as a more normative, discursive module, rather than learning the formal rules of relevant regulatory bodies.

Jenny identifies the perfect PBL session as the one in which the tutor says nothing.  Ideally, it should be led and driven entirely by the students, who are responsible for organising themselves.  In the first week, they may have a guided discovery based session, then they have to conduct their own research, feeding back in the following week.  How the problem is presented does vary, in order to avoid ‘PBL fatigue’ e.g. they might be given an academic article and prepare on the basis that they will be presenting on it at a conference.

Jenny is now taking us through ‘PBL on a Page’, showing us the 7-stage process of how it works at York, from clarifying concepts, through gathering and analysing information, to sharing results.  The stages are spread across a 2-week period.  Stages 1 – 5 occur in the first week’s session, Stage 6 is the week in between and Stage 7 is the following week’s session.  The formal sessions each last for one hour.

The assessment is constructively aligned, with a problem (though not the specific question) being released 48 hours in advance of the formal exam and students are actively encouraged to collaborate in their preparation of the exam.  Part A of the exam will ask them a question on the problem, which should be what they expect to see if they’ve prepared well.  Part B is less predictable, though it will relate to the problem in some way and will pick up some of the wider discussions they’ve had during the year.  It may have a more theoretical focus, so their preparation needs to extend beyond merely preparing an answer to the problem.

Some interesting discussion around the length and complexity of materials, with ‘less is more’ emerging as an ideal position.  Jenny is explaining that some signposting is needed in year 1, but not in year 3, where they may even build in some red herrings.  Lighter materials are also easier to update and so help to prevent a course from becoming ossified.  A comparison is being made here with the LPC, where bulky and complex case studies may make it more difficult to keep updating and refreshing the course.

Jenny is discussing how they manage the quality of the student’s research.  For example, the familiar problems of Google and Wikipedia, or even the problems with using, say, guidance notes published by Chambers that might now be out of date.  This is picked up via dialogue with the tutor in class.

Jenny has given us an example of a problem – a complaint against solicitors.  No, surely that could never happen?  She’s also explaining how the session actually functions, the roles performed by students, the ‘no laptops’ rule (oops, better hide mine fast) and the facilitative role of the tutor.  During the research ‘week’, students have access to a PhD student, who may offer some guidance or prompting, though without giving anything away.


We’ve been referred to a book: Casemaker Anthology, showing for example how to create a spiral curriculum.  The ebook version is free, though you will have to pay if you want a paper version.  I am having trouble with the PDF link for the book itself, though I was able to download the accompanying handbook.  I’ve emailed Libri to alert them to the broken link, so keep checking and hopefully it will soon be fixed.


We’re invited back tomorrow, for Part 2.






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