Examining Our Experiential Experiments

By Phyllis Goldfarb

In their new article, Assessing the Experiential (R)evolution, 65 Villanova Law Review 713 (2020), Allison Korn and Laila Hlass describe the ways in which experiential education is experimental education.   Faced with the 2014 ABA regulation mandating that all students earn at least six credits toward graduation in experiential courses, clinical education has been responding experimentally to the need to do more experientially, offering more courses in more forms to more students. At the same time, many law schools have been doing more with less, as the need for experiential growth has been accompanied by the diminished availability of resources.  

We can add to the complexities of this picture our burgeoning crises in global health, democratic governance, lethal racism, economic inequality, planetary survival, and other dangerous and pressing social problems that are implicated in the kind of work that clinical education undertakes.  Involving students in urgent and weighty matters of law and justice has long animated the clinical movement.  Have the ABA’s regulatory moves facilitated or impeded these aims in any way?  How is clinical education faring at this challenging moment? 

Korn & Hlass seek to address questions like these empirically, reporting in their article the findings of a 2018 survey they conducted to gather information about how experiential programs have changed in response to the ABA’s six-credit mandate.  The authors find that our experiential experiments have yielded an array of curricular innovations, especially though not exclusively in upper-level courses.  Their article also confirms the trend in most law schools to name a dean or director of experiential education, presumably to help design and oversee the experiential curriculum and to manage expanding experiential programs.  

The latter finding builds on those analyzed in Barry, Dinerstein, Goldfarb, Maisel, and Morton, Exploring the Meaning of Experiential Deaning, 67 Journal of Legal Education 660 (2018). In this article, my co-authors and I observed that despite a rapid increase in the creation of experiential administrator positions, and the assignment of various tasks to their holders, law schools had not fully conceptualized the nature of the position.  Consequently, the meaning of experiential deaning was in the process of invention and negotiation in each dean’s school.  In other words, these roles were experiments. 

Experiments, of course, are designed to be evaluated.  Applying a clinical method of learning, Korn & Hlass urge that we develop processes for evaluating recent experiments in experiential education, so that we can extract the lessons inherent in our experiences with administering, teaching, and reforming it.  Which changes are working well and worth retaining?  Which should be revisited?  Are institutional goals guiding these decisions?  To the extent that experiential administrators are steering these changes, how have institutional goals informed their work?   Are law schools further developing and defining these administrative positions?  Are these positions evolving in a sustainable way?  What conditions best support their sustainability?

The authors, experiential administrators in their respective institutions, have sought to learn from their own experiences in these administrative positions, to ask pertinent questions, suggest possible answers, and frame an assessment project that would guide them, and all experiential educators, in moving forward as knowledgeably and effectively as we can from where we stand now.  A rigorous assessment project of the sort that they helpfully propose in this article would inform our choices about the future of experiential education.

Having seen over many years how experiential learning can enliven, deepen, and transform legal education, I strongly value the expressive quality of the ABA’s regulatory directives to provide that kind of educational engagement to all law students.  I can envision rich curricular possibilities that these directives might support.  But my underlying fear has been that general law school administrators, especially those lacking awareness of the insight-cultivating aims of clinical pedagogy, would seek bare bones fulfillment of the mandate, finding the most limited and low cost ways to offer all students six experiential credits and shortchanging the educational opportunity that the mandate might represent.  Has that happened?  Korn & Hlass have begun to elicit the sort of information we need and to frame the kind of assessment process that we can use to better understand what the ABA’s regulatory efforts have wrought.

In gathering and analyzing experiential education’s experimental data, Korn & Hlass have taken an important first step toward a process of conscious assessment and collective deliberation that hold promise of improving our experiential programs and of identifying meaningful, inclusive, and sustainable practices for the next stage of development in experiential education.  The experiential education community would be well-served by joining them in this important and productive endeavor.

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