Post 13: An Education Revolution from the Field [continued]

Wednesday, December, 5, 12 § 1 Comment

This post includes Parts 2 and 3 of a three-part description of a national movement in adult education that successfully replaced the “sit-down-and-listen” model with a more dynamic, more humanistic learning approach. Read Part 1 here. By guest contributor Paul Biderman, J.D.

In Part 1, I described the Kolb learning circle, which presents a drastically revised approach to teaching people of any age and profession—in my case, judges and judicial staff. Here, in Parts 2 and 3, I describe what may be of more relevance to this blog: how nationwide exposure to the Leadership Institute and experiential learning concepts sparked a national movement to reinvent the field of judicial education.

Part 2: Applying the Learning Circle to Judicial Education

When I was first exposed to the learning circle model, I found it intuitively appealing. But I was skeptical that it would work in our context. After all, our audience consisted of judges, many of them in middle age or older, who were used to learning in classrooms, as they had in law school. All they expected from us was to bring in lecturers who were knowledgeable, organized, and entertaining. They would never go for educational programs that tried to engage them through stories and discussion groups.

After giving it more thought, however, I realized that the law school model with which they were familiar wasn’t all that one-dimensional. Almost all the attorney judges could remember participating in moot court, where they were assigned hypothetical cases to argue and brief before lawyers posing as judges.  In Kolb learning circle terminology, that activity involved taking information gained through abstract conceptualization and putting it into practice through active experimentation, converger style. Similarly, some had represented actual clients in various kinds of cases, under supervision of licensed lawyers, in law clinics.

And even the classes they attended daily weren’t just straight lectures on the law. Most were based on the “Socratic method,” as found in Plato’s dialogues, in which concrete experiences (the facts of a real case) were used to provide a context for reflective observation (consideration of the professor’s questions)—a diverger’s preferred approach. So all I had to do to convince judges of the value of alternative teaching methods was to remind them of their own experiences as law students.

But there was an even greater challenge: in our state, most magistrate, municipal and probate judges, as well as most tribal court judges, never went to law school; many never even completed college.  With them, we had to take our chances that we could win them over by providing convincing programs.

While our approach wasn’t always successful, overwhelmingly it worked. For most of the judges, lawyers and non-lawyers, and for the court staff as well, we learned how to develop effective educational programs that were engaging, informative and enjoyable. We brought in faculty familiar with learning styles concepts; trained some of our teachers in the learning circle model through our own mini-leadership institutes; adapted educational models for specific subjects developed by other state programs; and encouraged faculty as much as possible to incorporate experiential learning into their programs.

The result was to introduce a mix of teaching styles into our curriculum. While we continued to offer lectures, particularly from those faculty who were only comfortable in that mode, we began offering a range of programs that employed videos, small group discussions on case studies, moot court proceedings (especially for new, non-attorney judges), and other activities. We reached many judges and staff who found our educational techniques more enjoyable and the information easier to retain.

Part 3: How this model has transformed the field of judicial education

People come up with great ideas for improving education all the time, yet most of those ideas go nowhere or are confined to relatively few individual schools. How did the Kolb model manage to encircle virtually an entire field of education? And is that possible for other fields?

A quick review of the field of judicial education is helpful here. When I entered the field in 1991, programs that I found in other states ranged from a few pioneers a decade or more old to newer ones like ours. Many states had no program at all. Most were run by attorneys or retired judges; only a few had hired education professionals. Many were run by staff who also had other duties.

The existing programs mostly focused on planning their conferences and seminars, finding good speakers, encouraging attendance and trying to secure reliable funding. At that time a number of states still only educated judges, not court staff. Very few people were thinking about developing alternative educational models.

But the seeds of change were being planted. More and more states were beginning to send teams to the Leadership Institute in North Carolina. As happened to me, those teams came away from the Institute understanding experiential learning and learning styles.  Our national professional organization, the National Association of State Judicial Educators, used its annual conferences and monthly newsletter to spread the lessons from the Institute, share examples of their application, and encourage those who had not yet done so to send their own teams.  A judicial education support organization based in Michigan State University received federal funding to disseminate the Institute’s model by publishing monographs on experiential learning and a database of programming ideas and resources. In addition, other judicial organizations of judges, court administrators, and court staff, and several national judicial education programs, like the National Judicial College and the National Organization of Women Judges, got on board to varying degrees.

Within a few years, newer state programs were being built around the lessons of the Institute, and, with only a few holdouts, existing state programs were adapting its lessons.

So what factors enabled such a comprehensive transformation to occur?

While several factors may have been unique to specialized fields like ours, I believe some of the methods used to spread the new learning model may be adaptable to other educational reform efforts, including in K-12 education.

The factors that seem to have been unique to our field include the following:

  • Youth of the field. Since many judicial education programs were just beginning to emerge, even most of the more “mature” were relatively new, and thus more malleable.
  • Small size of the field. Most states have only one program and one director with a single judicial advisory or supervisory board, which means we only had to convince a few people in each state.
  • Lack of educational credentials. Though it may sound counter-intuitive, the fact that most judicial educators were not certified as educators worked in our favor. As most were formerly judges and lawyers (which is no longer the case), they knew little about adult education, and so were receptive and non-resistant to training that could guide them in their work.

Those factors would hardly be recognizable in a field like public school education, which has a history that goes back to the 1800’s, involves countless policymakers and boards and professionals, and is highly regulated and certified. But other lessons from our successful dissemination of the Institute’s model may be applicable:

  • Getting everyone on the same page. By establishing an institute open to all the key decision makers, and providing a consistent message to all teams, the Leadership Institute in Judicial Education developed common themes, goals and language throughout the profession. 
  • Providing an understandable model.  Knowing their audiences, most of whom had little background in education theory, the Institute avoided jargon and technical terms, and used examples and exercises to get their point across.  For example, the program would open with participants’ reflections on excellent learning experiences they had had  (reflective observation), and concluded with development of a plan for implementing their experience at home (active experimentation). As the faculty put it, in presenting the circle to us, they took us around it.
  • Educating in teams. The Institute strongly encouraged each state to send teams of both judicial education staff and board advisors or supervisors. That way the lessons could be learned and applied from perspectives of not just the educators but also the audiences represented by the board members. And it helped ensure that implementation of the ideas would be a cooperative effort, rather than one requiring education staff to sell the ideas to judicial supervisors.
  • Engaging professional organizations and media. Experiential learning became a topic at numerous professional conferences and in mentoring sessions with new educators, and the subject of monographs and database reports. This extensive communication of the theories and applications encouraged new educators to go to the Institute, to implement the ideas in their own programs, and to share their ideas with others.
  • Securing financial commitment. The federally funded State Justice Institute devoted a substantial part of its annual education support budget to this effort, and even paid the expenses for five state teams that attended each year. Each state program also made varying funding commitments, not only of staff and judiciary time to attend the Institute, but also by prioritizing the purchase of equipment and paying for out-of-state presenters who knew how to implement the experiential education ideas.
  • Enthusing and encouraging. The most intangible but still very important component of this transformation was the enthusiasm developed within the Institute teams, and the willingness of the participants to become missionaries for integrating experiential learning and the learning styles concepts into their program planning. Our job (including myself as one unapologetic missionary) was first to overcome skepticism from our program planning committees and supervising boards, to train our own staff, and to offer support for new educators in other states.

In sum, for those of you who are following this blog and dreaming of how you might help effect a transformation in teaching and learning in our public school system, I offer these three key points—and wish you the best of luck:

  • Creative models for effectuating educational transformation exist;
  • Transformation comes from the practitioners in the field at least as much as it comes from the top down; and
  • Success requires a combination of well-presented, accessible and intuitive ideas; robust networks for relational and published communication; and financial support.

Paul Biderman, J.D. | November 23, 2012



§ One Response to Post 13: An Education Revolution from the Field [continued]

  • Nanda says:

    Kind of amazing that there can be a collective sanity we can find in all walks of life when it is implemented.

    The team work was essential as teachers working with homeschool families and we were partners with the parents and vice versa.

    Also the commitment was energy which can be seen as money and with fund raising as well or events to support some dealing with serious illness, we lost a beloved teacher to cancer.

    We connected and visited the UC classes and took kids in to dialogue and also set up teas with remarkable people where we visited elders in the community to ask them about their lives and work and not so elder people as well..or as my friend would say young and not so young.

    We developed a way to speak about our work that became orientations, and town meetings to meet new people and talk and did yearly conferences with other programs and shared what was working in our programs. NO one was left out.

    We had to learn to move around or Aikido the negative ways we could be seen, and reach out to public programs as a resource for them not just for us, and not just stay to ourselves, interface.

    Anyhow thanks for this article, it made me think of all of this and see what we hold in common. I think that is the ticket to see what we share and how we lived it out.

    Parents were/are great educators because they do not have credentials and if anything we all had to de- school to just learn, not radicalize but let go and open the door.

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