View From the Classroom: Teaching by going

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

There’s something about going to a place that helps us learn more about it.  Whether that place is a courtroom, the capitol, a client’s home or business, or any other place associated with whatever we’re studying, we learn more about it by going.  But we don’t just learn more, we also learn more deeply, and we learn it longer.  Learning by going doesn’t help us just learn by rote; it helps us understand, contextualize, and remember.

This isn’t novel or surprising.  We all know it.  I was reminded most recently in a family trip to Gettysburg.  For all my studying and teaching about the meaning of the Civil War, federalism and Reconstruction in my constitutional law classes and with my own children, nothing quite matches the experiences of visiting the battlefield, touring significant homes, and even just wandering the town.  Going there gave us all a sense of the place and its significance—something we couldn’t have gotten just by reading about it.

Learning by going serves several ends.  Most directly, it introduces us to information that we might easily have missed in our book studies.  Sometimes this information is significant; sometimes it’s trivial.  Either way, we learn.  But learning by going does more: it helps reinforce and prioritize information from the books.  It thus complements book learning, even in those rare times that we don’t learn new information.

Learning by going also contextualizes information.  It gives us a setting—a location, a time-period, and a culture — to help us better situate an issue or a topic in its geographic, temporal, and cultural contexts.  We can compare our issue or topic to other issues and topics in a more complete way and thus understand our own issue or topic in a deeper sense.  In short, we get a better, fully, rounder view by going.

Finally, learning by going creates new paths in our synapses.  It helps form associations that previously did not exist—between, say, our senses in visiting a place and our knowledge of it—thus allowing us literally to make new connections between previously disconnected ideas.  Learning by going also gives us an anchor for our knowledge—a concrete memory to which we can attach all our learning on our issue or topic.  This anchor helps with recall, contextualization, and new neurological pathways.

Learning by going is a powerful, even necessary, way to learn.  But it’s not a part of the ordinary, traditional law school curriculum.  This is easy to change.  A visit to a local courthouse, for example, is a low-impact way to teach-by-going in many law school classes.  More ambitious and thoroughly planned field trips are even better.  These activities, along with formal classroom debriefing and journal exercises, can be a simple way to increase our students’ rote learning, understanding, and memory of the issues and topics we teach in the classroom.

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