Thinking in legal educ



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Alex Reilly: Foundations of Law and Refugee

Law and Policy
A particular concern of critical thinking is to appeal to and develop students’ extrinsic and intrinsic motivations for learning.94

A technique I use in all my courses to motivate students to learn is teaching legal principles through an engagement with contemporary issues which students discover for themselves in the context of a course. I do this very differently in a first year course and a final year elective.

In 2013 in Foundations of Law, the teaching team began each seminar with 15 minutes of ‘Legal Gossip’. Students were required to find local, national or international legal issues in print, broadcast or online media. The task was to identify the legal issue underpinning the news item and to ask questions about the item that reflected our learning of the law in the course at that time. As we learned about the institutions of government and the separation of powers, court hierarchies, and the concept of jurisdiction, students were required to apply their understanding of these concepts to the item that was currently the subject of legal gossip.

In the first week of Legal Gossip, we discussed the sources of legal information in the media and which information outlets students themselves used to source information. Students were encouraged to try out new sources of legal information, such as the ‘Legal Affairs’ sections of The Australian and the Australian Financial Review newspapers on Fridays, and the Law Report on ABC Radio National. Introducing students to these alternative sources of legal information is an important way to foster independent, self-directed learning.

93 See, for example, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, Flip your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day (International Society for Technology in Education, 2012).

94 John Biggs, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Open University Press,

2003) 61−3
We discussed the limitations of the media as a source of legal information, noting in particular that the journalists producing the stories were unlikely to have a legal background, and may not have had a deep understanding of the operation of legal institutions and their production of law. We also asked what assumptions underpin the journalists’ reporting of the law.

When a Legal Gossip item was reported to the class, the student presenting it was asked to present a brief summary of the story, and then to identify the legal context in which it arises and the particular legal issues at stake. Throughout the semester, students accessed an increasingly broad range of legal issues. Whereas in the early weeks they tended to report back on court cases, predominantly cases involving criminal offences, as the semester progressed they were able to identify a broader range of legal issues that were not evident on the face of the article, and through this, were often able to assess and critique the balance of reporting in the article.

Legal Gossip begins the process of inquiry that we hope to model throughout the law degree at Adelaide. Firstly, it demonstrates to students that they in fact have a considerable knowledge of the law without any formal training, and that they are able to extend this knowledge through their own inquiries. Secondly, it makes evident to students that law is a social and political construct which underpins and shapes the resolution of all issues in society. Thirdly, it offers an opportunity to unpack assumptions that are made in the reporting of legal issues, and the students’ assumptions in reading them, thus offering a direct engagement with the process of critical thinking as we have defined it above.95 By the time students study Refugee Law and Policy in the final years of their degree, they have a strong foundation of doctrinal knowledge. Instead of contributing to this store of knowledge directly, Refugee Law and Policy poses fundamental questions that underpin this area of law, such as the nature of state responsibility, the concept of state membership, the legal and political scope of the concept of a ‘refugee’, and the operation of the Refugee Convention in the Asia Pacific region, given the nature of refugee flows and political relationships in the region.

The course explicitly aims to raise difficult policy issues in their global, national and local contexts. The assessment requires students to engage in their own inquiries in response to the set questions discussed in class. The class discussion is designed to provide a foundation for deeper individual inquiry. Students are required to engage in two assessment tasks. The first is a short research paper on one of a set of topics arising from the classes. The second is a group presentation at the end of the semester on a set topic to which a group

95 Brookfield, above n 10, 159.
of students has been allocated. Each assessment is structured so that there is an interim assessment task on which students will receive feedback leading to the final research essay or presentation.

The difficult policy questions that underpin a nations response to the global refugee issue obviously lend themselves to this sort of wide-ranging inquiry. As a result of the investigation we have been conducting into critical thinking, I am considering other ways to challenge students’ assumptions about the regulation of people seeking asylum in Australia. One idea is to require students to have a more personal engagement with the issues by:

1. Requiring students to engage in community service with public or private organisations offering assistance to refugee arrivals in the local community, and writing a reflective journal on this experience. Possible activities include volunteering to assist high school students with homework, or acting as a mentor for first year university students with a refugee background. There are a number of established programs run by refugee organisations in which students can participate.

2. Organising students to visit refugees in the Inverbrackie Alternative Place of Detention. I have organised a tour of this facility in a previous course. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship openly facilitated this tour and spoke to the students at length about the facility. A different and more challenging experience for the students would be to visit the facility in a volunteer capacity, offering a service to residents in the Centre. These examples of experiential learning could be linked

to assessment tasks which require students to reflect on their experiences, and to consider those experiences in light of the legal regime governing refugee resettlement in Australia.

The Legal Gossip segments are a way to shift the focus from doctrinal analysis to a critical appraisal of law in society. It is a segment that works well in large or small classes. For me, this simple segment is a useful strategy to meet Thorntons concern about the loss of a critical appraisal of law as a result of class sizes and passive teaching methods.96
V CONCLUDING REMARKS
This article began by describing how the Adelaide Law School critical thinking group was formed in response to Margaret Thorntons economic analysis of contemporary legal education. While we do not claim to have transcended this critique, we have done important work toward strengthening the critical thinking skills of our students in both elective and compulsory courses. Our experience has been

96 See above, text accompanying footnote 5 to 7.
that, in many instances, the doctrinally focused pedagogy at the heart of Thorntons critique does not necessarily exist because it is the inevitable result of neoliberal pressures on universities, but because it has become accepted and replicated as the status quo. But for educators interested in moving beyond doctrinal transmission, encouragement lies in a number of recent reforms that have again emphasised the importance of teaching critical thinking in the LLB.

Through this project we have built relationships with other educators committed to critical pedagogy, shared knowledge and experiences and involved ourselves in a project that enriches our working lives. It is our hope that by sharing our journey we inspire other academics to work collaboratively on a project that matches their own unique interests and institutional concerns. At the Adelaide Law School, our critical thinking group will continue to encourage new membership and will run a daylong workshop to elicit feedback from students who have participated in the courses described above. We also plan to run seminars for our colleagues where we can share our experience and learn further about how to strengthen critical thinking in our curriculum.

Our project, like other investigations into areas such as staff and student wellbeing, represents one part of a growing tapestry of initiatives that are seeking to enrich our schools and ‘humanize legal education’.97 We should not lose sight of the level of collective energy that is going into alternatives, even as we continue to be self-reflective and critical of neoliberalism and its impacts on law schools.

97 See The Florida State University, College of Law, Humanizing Law School

22 December 2010, w.law.fsu.edu/academic_programs/humanizing_

lawschool/humanizing_lawschool.html>.
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