Unlearning as Learning Outcome

As the newly revised ABA accreditation standards 301 and 302 now require law schools to clearly articulate and publish their learning outcomes for their students, so individual faculty members must do likewise. Yet it is not uncommon to see these learning outcomes statements that read like the table of contents of the textbook used to teach the course. To truly be effective in driving learning and teaching, learning outcomes must be targeted, concrete, measurable and active (not “learning about” but “learning how to”).

How do we most effectively choose and articulate these learning outcomes? In MAKING LEARNING WHOLE: HOW SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF TEACHING CAN TRANSFORM EDUCATION 83-89 (2010)., educational specialist David Perkins emphasizes that learning is most effective if learners “work on the hard parts.” Similarly, the UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN framework, originally developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, emphasizes beginning the search for course goals by looking for the “Big Idea” in the course. These are the ideas or themes that can be used throughout a legal career and that require a lot of work to master.

One of the most effective ways to uncover these “big ideas’ or ‘hard parts” is to focus first on unlearning outcomes – that is, preventing and addressing predictable misunderstandings in the course. Thus, for example, much of the first year of law school is devoted to “unlearning” the positivist philosophy of students who believe the law is resolutely determinate. These fundamental misunderstandings are persistent, difficult to overcome and block learning of new ideas. Students construct knowledge by building on prior understandings. If those prior understandings are incomplete or incorrect, new learning will be flawed as well. As summarized by NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL, COMMITTEE ON DEVELOPMENTS IN THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING, HOW PEOPLE LEARN: BRAIN, MIND, EXPERIENCE, AND SCHOOL: EXPANDED EDITION 11 (2000), “teachers need to pay attention to the incomplete understandings, the false beliefs, and the naive renditions of concepts that learners bring with them to a given subject.”

In her new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) ( 2014), Elizabeth Green reviews the research concluding that effective teachers (as measured by student learning gains) are those who are able to identify the reasons that students misunderstand and help them to unlearn those misunderstandings.

Some of the most fundamental misconceptions that students bring to a subject from their own experience (or from bad course outlines passed around from prior semesters) must be discovered in the classroom. Brief classroom assessment devices such as “minute papers” or statements for the students to complete can easily generate a range of incorrect or incomplete understandings for any given topic.  The mission to discover student errors leads faculty to many of the best practices in teaching: regular interaction with students, frequent and meaningful feedback, and active learning strategies.

The power of an “unlearning” perspective on assessment improves student learning, but also quickly leads faculty to a deeper understanding of what assessment of student learning oucomes means.  Assessment is not an end-point, a box to be checked, reported and forgotten, but is an iterative process of discovery and experiment that drives students and faculty learning alike. Assessment tools (such as quizzes, socratic dialogue, essays, simulations, and reflections) might be used to unearth student misconceptions.  These misconceptions then become the basis for the learning outcomes around which one can build a course and assessments then can be used to determine the extent to which one is successfully dislodging misunderstanding and misconception and replace it with a solid framework mastery.

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