Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why all teachers should be trained to "think like a lawyer."

I am not a lawyer. At one point I thought I wanted to be one, and actually my first major in college was pre-law, but a stint as an intern for a defense attorney quashed that desire. Instead I went on to a Political Science degree and later became a teacher but as I reflect on my 15 years in the classroom and current work helping teachers and schools I've come to realize the importance of "thinking like a lawyer". While thinking about lawyers may conjure all kinds of connotations the core skill to focus on here involves the art of questioning.
Much of my professional life involves training teachers in project based learning and while there are a number of learnings I want teachers to leave my workshops with perhaps the most important one is the art and value of questioning. Great projects start with a great question for investigation and continue the cycle of inquiry throughout. While not all teachers and schools may go wall to wall PBL what I hope is that they will continually practice the use of questions to lead others and uncover information. Great lawyers are skillful at questioning in client interviews, jury selection, and courtroom examination as they lead and uncover important information in building their case. While we don't want to think of our classrooms as settings for putting students on trial we definitely want to use Socratic Method to lead them, much like a lawyer leads someone on the stand, to an understanding without saying the answer ourselves. In the famous scene from A Few Good Men shown above you see Tom Cruise as an attorney leading Jack Nicholson. In the end Nicholson says the things that Cruise's character hoped and while our motives are different, this practice of using questioning to lead students is precisely what we want to model in our classrooms.
Of course not all questioning is used to lead students in pursuit of productive struggle. As teachers we also want to use questions to engage students and formatively assess their progress and modeling the practice as a habit of mind shows students how to do so themselves. Formative assessment uncovers student progress so we can know how to respond in order to build deficiencies.  This requires asking the right questions and as this (kind of cheesy) Mindtools video to the left notes, asking the wrong questions doesn't get us the information we need. Using methods like Socratic Seminar and Critical Friends Groups pushes students (and teachers) to learn how to do this and certainly highly evolved PBL classrooms have students constantly engaged in inquiry and questioning.
As we strive to prepare for college and career readiness it's important to note that great questioning requires the deep critical thinking that make students successful in both settings. This kind of rigor shows up as students learn to use different types of questioning and while teachers may be experts of content, the skills that trained lawyers excel in are the true key to unlocking student learning. Strong instructional design sets scenarios where students engage with the content by asking questions instead of the teacher dictating it. This intentional architecture includes ill-defined
problems that require students to identify things they need to know that should line up with your subject matter so they're working to uncover content instead of the teacher merely "covering" it. While teachers may be used to having all the answers I'll leave you with a question that stems from this comic that in the full version feels almost like a cross-examination...Is it better to have all the answers or all the questions?