Diversity, critical thinking, participation




"Teaching at the Graduate Institute is both a blessing and a challenge. Teaching law adds to the complexity. New approaches are emerging: multidisciplinary seminars, legal clinics, use of IT. At the Graduate Institute we get the freedom to be at the cutting edge.Teaching small groups of only graduate students (Master or PhD level), who were carefully selected before admission, is a true blessing. I have taught in many institutions, both in Europe and the United States, and the overall quality and depth of a classroom at the Graduate Institute is hard to match. The students themselves add to the experience, and each year I learn a lot from them as they come from a wide variety of countries and backgrounds and often have interesting past professional and personal experience.

That diversity is also the main source of the challenge of teaching here: students come with different levels of prior knowledge, some have almost none, others have already worked in the field for half a decade; some are trained lawyers with practical litigation experience, others are economists or historians who attend their first law course.
The fact that a standard course only runs for 14 weeks, at less than two hours per week, adds to the challenge.

What makes teaching and learning in the fields that I cover special?

Firstly, ever since I joined the Graduate Institute in 2007, I have co-taught a multidisciplinary course with a colleague from another department, ranging from a law and political science take on international institutions, to a law and economics approach to trade disputes. It takes energy and communication skills to do this but if it works (and sometimes it doesn’t!) it is highly rewarding not only for the students but also for the professors. Traditionally we work so much in our disciplinary silos that merely discussing common themes together in a classroom opens surprising doors to new ways of thinking about a problem.

Secondly, most of our law students take up a career in legal practice, be it with a law firm, government, international organisation, company or NGO. By the time they start their graduate studies with us they already have many years of legal training behind them. Yet, for most students this training is limited to theoretical course work. In most law schools, especially in Europe, practical legal skills or experience are not part of the curriculum. Many of our incoming students do not even have legal writing under their belt. Somehow we assume that all of this will be learnt on the job, at the expense of future employers. I think legal educators have a role to play here too. We produce better lawyers if we also offer them hands-on practical skills of how to analyse and present a problem, how to write a legal brief, how to work in groups and interact with clients. These are the skills we focus on in the Trade and Investment Law Clinic I started in 2008. Each year, we carefully select around 15 students (not only law students) who are assigned to a specific legal project submitted to us by a real “client”. “Clients” are governments, NGOs, international organisations or small businesses who would otherwise not be able to afford a lawyer. For students it is hard work but they invariably tell me the clinic was one of their best experiences. They not only get to write a real-life legal brief and to present it orally before a distinguished audience; they also get multiple rounds of expert sessions, comments and feedback from me and other experienced people in the field. For me, as a teacher, it ensures a steady stream of ever-changing, cutting-edge problems I can supervise and work on, instead of having to teach the same seminar each year. “Clients” too are happy: they get topnotch legal work, at no cost, and get to test or spread their concerns and ideas in a worldwide network of students and professionals. Doing a successful legal clinic on international law is not easy. At the Graduate Institute we can pull it off: we have the quality and diversity of students and teaching assistants (including linguistic diversity!) and, being in Geneva, we have a rich pool of potential clients and experts to help out.

Thirdly, enhancing student participation and critical thinking is a key objective. A real risk with traditional classroom teaching is that we merely transfer facts from the teaching notes of the professor to the student notes of the audience, without critical internalisation. What has worked in my classroom? Dividing students in weekly “panels” whereby students “on panel” will be called upon to answer questions (otherwise, the same minority of students dominate classroom discussions week after week), having students do oral presentations themselves, introducing midterm exams on which I give feedback (this doubles my exam correction work but forces students to digest materials midterm), doing in-class quizzes using “clickers” whereby students answer multiple choice questions on a personal “clicker” box: once they have provided their (anonymous) answer to the computer (all students, even the shy ones, must answer!), students find a colleague who provided a different answer and discuss the question; after that, they get a second chance to answer the same question; invariably the percentage of correct answers increases, students are forced to apply the knowledge we covered in class to a particular fact pattern and teach each other by engaging in a group discussion.

What I would like to try next? A “flipped classroom”, where students are asked to watch an online video and/or do exercises before coming to class, and classroom time is focussed on discussion and problem solving."

This article originally appeared in Globe No. 16, Autumn 2015.