View From the Classroom: Putting creativity into learning

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.

Something happens in large law school classes to stifle law students’ creativity.  Maybe this happens in other classes, too, but it’s most obvious in large classes.  Students in large classes participate in safe, even rote, ways; they come to expect the traditional Socratic approach, with all its trimmings; and they prepare, mechanically, using all-too-familiar methods: reading, participating in study groups, and outlining.  All this is expected, predictable.  And we teachers foster it, through our organization, planning, and execution of our large courses.  But we don’t have to.

We know that our law students have creativity, because they once showed it.  I was reminded of this just this week, when I talked with a group of high school civics and government teachers.  They reminded me that high school students often develop amazingly creative projects as part of their coursework.  These students, drawing on their wide open world views (not yet encumbered by experiences that tend to narrow that view), their natural curiosities, and even their technical competencies, can create some surprisingly creative work in new and unusual mediums.  And what’s more: their creative work almost always helps them learn better.

We also know that our law students will show creativity.  We see this best when they work outside large law school classes.  When our students work in clinics, for example, or on law journals, or in seminars, they frequently reveal their creativity—often in ways that high school students do.  When our students have an opportunity, they show real creativity.  And, as with high school students, what’s more: their creative work almost always helps them learn better.

So why do law students check their creativity at the door to a large class?  One explanation may be that their undergraduate education indoctrinated them to do this.  Large undergraduate lecture classes, where students are anonymous and where participation consists largely of listening and taking notes, can create an expectation that any large class is designed for passive, not active, learning.  Passive learning, in turn, means safe, rote learning, not creative, learning.  If our law students had large lecture classes as undergraduates—and I’m told they likely did—it’s easy to see why they behave similarly in our large law classes.

Another explanation is that we foster passive, non-creative learning through our course organization, planning, and execution.  We have a penchant for structure, predictability, and organization, especially in large classes, if for no other reason than to manage the size.  But that penchant too often translates into rigid and traditional teaching—the kind of teaching that doesn’t make a lot of room for student creativity.  And if creativity aids learning, as it does in high school classes or in our own seminars and clinics, this is a lost opportunity.

But it’s easy to make space for student creativity, even in our large classes.  We can rethink the way we structure our classes, for example, focusing on small groups and peer learning, among other techniques, instead of the traditional large-class Socratic Method.  We can structure classes to integrate on-line resources and participatory devices in addition to our in-person class meetings.  And we can look to alternatives to the traditional end-of-semester, issue-spotting exam.

We can make space for student creativity even without fundamentally restructuring our courses.  It’s easy to incorporate short projects into our traditional large classes.  We might require student presentations, for example, either in class or outside of class.  We might require student journaling or short essay-writing throughout the semester.  Or we might even just include an occasion non-traditional resource in our classes—a short film, an alternative reading assignment, or a guest for open questions-and-answers with students (and not just for a lecture).

If creativity enhances learning—and we know that it does—it’s not just easy to do; it’s essential to do.

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