Participatory Learning, A Game-Changer for Legal Education in India?

  • Abhishek Sinha
  • Published 08/08/2023
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Participatory Learning, A Game-Changer for Legal Education in India?

In a world of fluid geographies and virtual learning, legal education in India continues to veer towards traditional teaching methodologies teacher-centred themes, monologues, lecture series and theoretical approaches. With the Digital India initiative picking up in a big way and the judiciary taking proactive steps to go completely online — like during the pandemic — a digital overhaul of legal education is critical, to the changing times.

The traditional approach is not only employed by several law colleges and diploma programs but is also deployed in the process of delivering continued legal education (CLE) for qualified lawyers (whether in law firms/legal department of corporates). The Ministry of Law & Justice and the Bar Council of India have time and again acknowledged the importance and need for a mandatory CLE for Indian advocates. Several reports have been prepared, however, as on date it’s not a mandatory requirement. In contrast, countries like the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France and Italy have mandatory CLE credit requirements for all legal professionals. Despite this issue being very close to my heart, it’s not really the focal point here.

It’s time we acknowledge and appreciate the fact that the teaching method itself needs an overhaul, especially in the legal education sector.  We have to not only acknowledge but also adopt new ways of imparting legal education, whether to law students or young legal professionals. In this scenario, it’s important to understand that ‘new ways’ should not be construed as mundane webinars or online courses, which have recently become very popular, not by choice but by compulsion.

We must explore the construct of “participatory learning” in the legal education sphere. This is no longer considered an experimental tool/method of imparting knowledge. Much has been written, researched and implemented when it comes to the concept of participatory learning. It’s not a new concept vis-à-vis legal education in certain developed countries like US and UK. However, in India, the concept is relatively new. But this should not be an impediment in exploring this method for teaching law/conducting CLEs.

It’s a method that focuses on learning through participation in moderated discussions. It simply replaces the classic ‘teacher construct’ with a ‘moderator’. The formal and traditional teaching methods assume that students/participants lack information on a particular topic, however, participatory learning teaching urges the learners to apply common sense and logical reasoning. The conclusion and learnings from such discussion, which is moderated by an expert in that area of law, are retained by the participants for a longer time. This effect itself is worth applauding.

Participatory method of teaching and learning in legal education, places more importance on experiences, case studies, deal analysis, real-time assignments, moderated discussions and participation from all those who are a part of the session, whether a classroom session or online. There are various participatory techniques. Generally, it actively involves and motivates learners through discussions, logical reasonings, experiences of the moderator, market practice, market trends and the law itself. Problem-solving through real-time assignments, real-life deal/case examples and hypothetical situations surrounding the topic being discussed, make learning new, enjoyable and fun. The idea is not to do away with formal teaching completely. However, a balance needs to be achieved between both methods of teaching. A mixture of both approaches will be the answer to the question: What is the best possible method for imparting legal education?

Participatory learning should not be confused with “clinical legal education”. The latter is an experiential learning process, which promotes the growth of personal skills and values, while also promoting social justice. It can be one of the tools in the participatory learning technique which caters to developing softer skills and sensitizing the participants on issues surrounding social justice and ethics. The importance of clinical legal education cannot be ignored. The former Chief Justice of India, Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, and Professor Madhava Menon, have spoken on several occasions, emphasising the importance of clinical legal education, and how it helps budding lawyers.

Almost 40 years back, Andrew Patter identified two distinct educational objectives, namely, (i) subject-matter objectives (i.e., areas of law, the students should understand), and (b) the learning objectives (i.e., the manner of learning). The participatory learning method is one of the easiest ways to minimise the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical applicability. Merely teaching legal doctrines along with the relevant and important precedents is not adequate in today’s highly competitive and demanding work environment.

If participation in the session increases the engagement with the students and promotes active learning, more than half of the job is completed. However, like all other techniques and teaching methods, the participatory learning technique also has certain challenges. It can sometimes be a little alienating, intimidating and stressful for some participants, who are unable to contribute to the discussions. This can sometimes be a little tricky to address. The moderator has to be mindful of this aspect and must implement an all-inclusive approach toward the participants.

Even though participatory learning has a flavour of the ‘Socratic Approach’, it is far away from being archaic.

(The writer is Associate Dean, UPES School of Law)

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Abhishek Sinha
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The writer is Abhishek Sinha, Associate Dean, UPES School of Law

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