View from the Classroom: Learning in the real world

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.

We teachers too often show our students that learning has nothing to do with the real world—that education and outside reality are separate and distinct.  This is true in the primary and preparatory years; it’s true for most college disciplines; and it’s true—too true—in legal education.

In law school, we send this message in a thousand different and subtle ways.  We assign and teach abstract material, without drawing a connection to current events.  We study in the cloistered classrooms of our ivory towers, without venturing into the community.  And we put heavy academic demands on our students, without emphasizing the importance of engaging in the real world.  We amplify these messages in the first year, where school is especially distinct from reality, and we thus lead our students from the get-go to seeing their education as (at best) mere preparation for the real world to (at worst) completely distinct from it.

But in truth we all know that education is part of the real world, especially in the law.  We know, for example, that the cases we study are from the real world and have immediate real world application.  We know that our law school communities exist within larger political, economic, social, and legal communities, including our immediate and mediate geographical communities, our bar communities, and our academic communities.  And, most importantly, we know that our students learn best, and later practice best, when they are attuned to reality.  Legal education, perhaps more than any other field, is primed for connecting the classroom to the real world.

And it’s easy to do.  We can bring current and even past events into the classroom to show our students the connection between our studies and the real world.  We can take our students outside the classroom, on field trips, to see how our studies operate in practice.  And we can urge our students to engage in the real world on their own time—from simply reading the newspaper every day to volunteering in the community to participating in the political, economic, or cultural life of the community.

This does not require a trade on theory in the classroom, as many might argue.  Nothing about engaging the real world means that we have to disengage with more abstract theory.  In fact, just the opposite is true: we can do more theory, and do it better, by bringing in the real world.  This is because theory becomes concrete and internalized for our students when we connect it to practice.  When students experience theory (rather than just study it), they connect and anchor it to reality, embedding it more firmly in their consciousness.  They also see its implications and can understand it on a different, practical level.  As they become more comfortable and competent with theory (because they know it better), we can do more, and we can do it more effectively.  We thus do theory even better when we connect it to reality.

Connecting the classroom to the real world is easy and beneficial.  We know this.  Now we just have to do it.

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