Workshop at the IISL in Onati from 22nd – 24th of June 2011
Chairs: Raquel Medina Plana, Ulrike Schultz
The development of critical thinking is maybe one of the most important educational issues in the field of social sciences. Broadly conceived as the capacity of discernment, it is indeed a complex capacity, as it requires the mobilization of a multitude of skills, knowledge and dispositions. Such complexity makes possible a whole diversity of approaches: from a cognitivist point of view, critical thinking is considered a sum of objective procedures, based on the correct assessment of affirmations; a definite aggregate of argumentative structures that can be learned and taught. From a more constructivist perspective, critical thinking is not decontextualizable, being conceived as a whole emerging from tacit social practices. From the Vigotskyan perspective, if critical thinking could be transmitted to students, it would be only through a professor-pupil relationship, centred on the socialization of the novice, who is introduced to the professor’s world vision.
If critical thinking is central for social sciences education, what does it amount for legal education? Which of the above related different perspectives to approach critical thinking is the one that law schools favours and projects on students and scholars?
This workshop aims to address the treatment of critical thinking inside the legal schools, from a diversity of perspectives. Antecedents of this proposal are several educational research projects Raquel Medina has coordinated and participated in in the last 5 years; directly related to this proposal is the Oñati meeting “Critical Thinking at Law and Social Sciences Schools”, 6th-7th May 2010, that will reunite law and social sciences scholars, in order to obtain a preliminary comparative frame. The 2011 workshop is intended to focus on law schools, framing critical thinking into legal education issues. Participants are coming from different legal scholarship areas: constitutional (public) law, commercial law, civil law, legal philosophy, legal history and sociology of law. They all share interest in the critique perspective and the most insightful contributions into the legal education field.
We will be discussing “Legal Education” in the present changing context. Global trends seem to relocate universities into a corporate arena; in Europe, the same function is served by the “Bologna’s process”. Subject of derision for a considerable part of the academy – that is bigger in law schools – mainly because regarded as dealing mostly with pedagogical issues, another kind of critics, of a deeper concern, focus on the skills perspective that Bologna tries to impose, dangerously related to the instrumentalization of knowledge. The whole process, though, is attracting reflection on education issues inside schools, and also some funds gladly spent by universities in the name of “innovation” approaches. How the reflection on education is mediated in these “innovative” researches?
We think all these processes have a fundamental effect in the way how critical thinking is treated inside law schools; some would defend that it is just a stronger explicitation of a theoretical principle, which entails not much real change in study plans nor in professors’ praxis. On the skills approach, the “critical skill” is regarded in the law study plans as a central skill, of a transversal nature, a cross-over concept that makes much of the liaison between Law and Social Sciences. Critical thinking is subject to the biggest respect; it can be said even as being the main attribute of a lawyer, at least of a law scholar. But, taking aside that almost fetishist admiration for the most archetypical of intellectual capacities, what is made of critical reasoning inside law schools? How is it structured through the study plans? Given the strong dissolvent properties of critical thinking, law schools tend to reserve a calculatedly residual place to it. Are propaedeutic disciplines, as Legal Philosophy, Legal History or Legal Sociology given all the responsibility for it, leaving the other positivist/doctrinal disciplines to go along being doctrinal? Is this deal amicable enough? What does it amount for? How is this image projected on the students and the scholars themselves? Is this really changing?
So, one of the subjects of discussion will be the different ways through which this “critical skill” is institutionalized within law schools. Besides the above mentioned disciplinary dealings, and all their gremial interests accompaniment, the inside face of disciplines is also on the move. Course programmes or syllabus, now labelled “Student guides”, in the old days protected by the secrecy of scholarship freedom, are nowadays being the subject of some discussion at the school departments, that must consensuate them and present them to the faculty. This inside-outside process is mediated by the skills approach, so nowadays “contents” are to be subordinate to skills. What is made of the “critical skill” in all this process? How are “contents” redesigned to fit into that perspective? Once the Pandora’s contents box is open, something can be made of it? What, on what conditions, in behalf of what?
Another kind of issues is related to the day-to-day practice of the law professor: how is critical thinking integrated on his daily teaching? And, even more difficult to articulate, given that critical thinking can be seen also as the ultimate definition of scholar excellence, how are the students assessed on this capacity? The complexity of such capacity, obviously, makes difficult to evaluate the students’ progress; but more so, it is the controvert approach law scholars made to it, all the way between obscurity and sublimation, what makes of it the perfect place for un-explicit and un-explicitable deals and patterns of assessment, or, from a Bourdieuan perspective, the lieu of cooptative operations oriented by a practical sense of selective affinities.
Midway between theory, institutions and practices lies the gender issues. Does gender redefine the syllabus? Does gender imply a different treatment of critical thinking? How is this rendered by schools as educative institutions?
Both practical and theoretical approaches will be of interest. Different panels will be organised along the following lines:
- Critical thinking in the academy
- Critical thinking and legal culture
- Critical thinking within formalized systems
- Gender perspective on legal critical thinking
- Critical legal theory in Law schools
- Critical thinking as a professional skill for lawyers and social scientists
- Teaching experiences: learning and assessment methods focused on the development of critical skills
- Interdisciplinarity as an instrument to build critical thinking
- Transfers between research and teaching
- Assessment of critical thinking skills on students
About Raquel Medina Plana (chair): Professor of legal history at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, she holds 2 degrees in Law and Socio-Cultural Anthropology, and a PhD in Law. Ongoing lines of research: History of constitutionalism, Family Law, Legal Education.
Ulrike Schultz (co-chair): lawyer and Senior Academic at the Fern Universität Hagen,