Paul L. Caron

Friday, May 15, 2020

Law Schools Need Improvement Science, Now More Than Ever

Chance Meyer (Nova), Law Schools Need Improvement Science, Now More Than Ever:

CoronavirusTimes of crisis force important decisions under circumstances that make good decisions unlikely. The COVID-19 pandemic has required law schools to make major changes in a rush, in distress, and in the dark as to what the future holds. The downstream consequences, for students and educators, will be significant. For years to come, law schools will need to continuously reassess and redesign programs and operations in the unstable conditions of the pandemic’s aftermath.

The customary approach law schools take when deciding what organizational changes to make and how to see those changes through will not lead reliably to success. To thrive in the challenging times ahead, law schools need a disciplined methodology for developing and implementing changes designed to have the most beneficial—or least harmful—impact on outcomes, based on the unique characteristics of individual law schools.

When a law school faces a new challenge, the customary approach is to form a committee or task force to gather information and brainstorm ideas. Ideas generally involve adopting the latest, most touted teaching methods, products, or resources. The favorite ideas of the people with the greatest influence win the day. Those ideas are implemented to find out whether and how they work for the law school.

This approach is common and long-standing. It is also deeply flawed, biased, and—from an improvement standpoint—backwards. ...

One critical problem with the customary approach is that it results in law schools, as organizations, making important decisions based on biases. In Judgment in Managerial Decision Making, Max Bazerman and Don Moore explain how heuristics and biases guide organizational decision-making in the absence of scientific methodology.

  • Recency bias ...
  • Insensitivity to sample size ...
  • Overconfidence bias ...

Law schools that allow biases to dictate the organizational changes they make wind up jumping constantly from one idea to the next in an endless frenzy of new initiatives, burning through resources and people, without consistently or measurably improving outcomes.

In Learning To Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better, experts at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching explain why the customary approach fails:

[C]hange too often fails to bring improvement—even when smart people are working on the right problems and drawing on cutting-edge ideas. Believing in the power of some new reform proposal and propelled by a sense of urgency, educational leaders often plunge headlong into large-scale implementation. Invariably, outcomes fall far short of expectations. Enthusiasm wanes, and the field moves on to the next idea without ever really understanding why the last one failed.

Under pressure to act quickly, legal educators rush to select and implement promising ideas for change. Even if they have the right ideas, reckless implementation causes disappointing and often untraceable results. Educators then misattribute the poor results to their ideas, rather than the vagaries of slapdash implementation. So they keep looking for the next good idea, without giving good ideas a chance to work. ...

Improvement science puts the process in the right order. Improvers marshal the collective and diverse knowledge of organizational members to identify and test ideas for change that will have the greatest impact on outcomes once implemented at scale. Through this process, the system tells the educators what ideas it needs, not the other way around.

That role reversal is critical, because, contrary to popular belief, law school systems and the problems they encounter are inevitably too complex for the human mind to fully conceptualize. ...

Many faculty and staff rushing to build capacities in distance learning during the pandemic have remarked that there is no playbook for this situation. But, in a sense, there is. In fact, there is an entire scientific discipline, packaged into a practical, step-by-step process, recommended by experts for schools struggling with complex problems in rapidly changing environments. Legal educators across the country sprung into action with admirable commitment when suddenly faced with the need to move online. But, in the months and years to come, a more disciplined and prudent approach is available.

Improvement science is how organizations get serious about getting better. ...

Any legal educator can make the paradigm shift to becoming an improver. It is never too late to start. Resources like The Improvement Guide are available. Consultants are available. Efforts to bring organizational theory into law schools have already begun, such as in Patrick Gaughan’s Facilitating Meaningful Change Within U.S. Law Schools. ...

Many predict COVID-19 will usher in an era of distance learning. It is equally likely that emergency remote teaching will lead to poor results, and the takeaway for many professors will be that distance doesn’t work. Rather than continuing to blame teaching methods for the consequences of rushed implementation, we should come out of these awful events with a new commitment to organizational learning through science-based initiatives.

Legal education could benefit tremendously from the founding of an institute for improvement science in legal education. The institute would serve as a resource for training and technical talent to assist law schools in improvement initiatives, and could act as the hub of a networked improvement community, so law schools could learn from each other.

For complete TaxProf Blog coverage of the coronavirus, see here.

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