Bottom-up pedagogy

Awardees: Jon Hanson and Jacob Lipton (HLS)

Summary: Awardees will develop, expand, and improve a new approach to legal education (and higher education generally) that is more problem-oriented, team-driven, and experiential than are traditional and conventional pedagogical methods.

Harvard Law School Professor Jon Hanson and Jacob Lipton ’14 piloted The Systemic Justice Project (SJP) in Spring 2015: a collection of experiential courses (“Systemic Justice” and “The Justice Lab”) requiring students to engage, often in teams, on real-world problems to produce papers that inform policymakers, lawyers, and activists, and to present, discuss, and receive feedback on their work at a conference.

With Spark funding, SJP students organized and administered the 2016 Systemic Justice Conference, which took place in April over three days. The conference attracted hundreds of attendees: journalists, lawyers, academics, and students. Shaped by the students’ interests, the conference focused primarily on access to justice, campus protest, and the status of legal education. Students presented their course projects and moderated panels of lawyers and academics. Hanson said, the idea was to “try to put students in the driver’s seat as much as possible.”

Some of the most compelling elements of the weekend conference were two narrative sessions: staged in a seeded, open mic format, each session allowed students, staff, faculty, alumni, and other members of the audience to share their personal experiences of broken legal systems and legal education systems. Hanson and Lipton characterized the experience as unique and illuminating, in that it brought together people and groups who would not have otherwise shared and discussed these issues.

They administered an online survey to conference attendees: 95% of respondents indicated that the event deepened their awareness or understanding of the role of legal education in addressing systemic problems, and 90% indicated intent to attend another event next year if offered—which Hanson and Lipton plan to do.

Hanson and Lipton believe that the SJP model—courses designed to put students at the helm of their learning experience, selecting projects they feel passionate about, and producing papers and events that contribute to a professional body of knowledge—is a model that could be replicated in other schools and educational contexts with similar benefits.