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Home arrow Law arrow Integrating Socio-Legal Studies into the Law Curriculum

Learning activities

Having set some big-picture outcomes for the module, and replaced the insti- tutional/principle/law pillars with learning-driven themes, it is necessary to explore the mechanics of that learning - things students can actually do, beyond reading/attending passive contact opportunities. Here it is worth thinking about what theories of curriculum design say about tasks. Meyers and Nulty develop five principles of activity design, suggesting that learning activities should be: (a) authentic, real-world and relevant; (b) constructive, sequential and interlinked; (c) engaging students with progressively higher order cognitive processes; (d) aligned with each other and the desired learning outcomes; and (e) challenging, interesting and motivating (Meyers and Nulty, 2009, p. 567).

From these starting-points, it is clear that it would be inadvisable to drop in a couple of token empirical tasks into an otherwise traditional module - to do so would jar with student expectations and raise questions about fit, purpose and assessment. Colleagues at different institutions have tried to adopt some disciplinary diversity in terms of the materials called upon - to use appropriate statistical and policy documents. At York we bring Eurostat and Eurobarometer materials and media commentary into plenaries (interactive lectures) early on, to encourage students to think in terms of evidence. For example, we run through the questions used in a Eurobarometer survey on citizenship and identity (European Commission, 2004; 2011), surveying the room and comparing the results with those recorded for different Member States. This also gives us the opportunity to question the nature and validity of the survey, which involves a bit of methodological insight. This also creates a way into thinking about empirical work, as we (perhaps wrongly) do not expect students to have thought about questionnaire formulation, survey sample sizes and issues of self- selecting respondents.

One possible development would be to open up the concept of the survey more explicitly, to ask what sorts of evidence, apart from opinions or popularity, can be gathered when testing areas of EU law. This, of course, requires asking what we would be testing for, opening up questions about effective implementation, margins of discretion, and also effective communication and degrees of agreement between different legal systems. It is possible then to hone in on an example case - such as Horvath [2009], in which the legitimacy of the UK maintaining different systems as between Scotland and England was raised (see Cardwell and Hunt, 2010), or Omega [2004] in which the differences in cultural salience between Member States of 'dignity' as a human right was at issue (see Nic Shuibhne, 2009) - and to ask what sorts of evidence were, and might have been, compiled. We could also focus on a particular legal issue, such as the status of children in the EU or child migration (Stalford, 2010), and look at how researchers have backed up their suggestions. And, finally, we can look at areas of clear national cultural divergence, such as fundamental rights, or citizenship requirements, or the use of medical criteria in recruitment, and find out what research has been conducted to shed light on them, and why (EU Network of Independent Experts on Disability Discrimination, 2004).

The notion of judicial friction can be explored through methodically examining cases 'as data'. At Bradford, a sample case is used for students to scrutinize the differences in reasoning - and expression - of the court and the advocate-general. It might be possible to go both deeper and broader by also bringing in to play the reasoning of the domestic court and the containment of the issue through careful preliminary reference drafting, and to look at different methods of analysis (e.g. content analysis). Related commentaries could be similarly systematically analysed: Schepel and Wesseling performed a quantitative study on journal articles to argue that European lawyers and commentators contributed to the creation of a formalism in EU law and to identify the norms of that community and the characteristics of the 'legal field' (Schepel and Wesseling, 1997, adapting the legal field concept from Bourdieu, 1994).

Jess Guth of Bradford University suggested that we think about devoting more time to fewer cases to allow more deep thinking; for example, by constructing some of our contact time, such as lectures, around one case each. This could tie into the module objective of being able to use EU law practically, because understanding how domestic courts frame questions is key to persuading them to make the reference in the first place. With a suitably designed case it is then possible to ask students to draft arguments to a domestic court for making a reference, and to produce a draft set of questions, which we do towards the end of the year at York. This also requires them to think about the nature of a preliminary reference, the role of the ECJ, and to do the leg work of actually following the court's guidance on drafting a reference.

Thinking about making references - or just about constructing arguments in a domestic dispute - requires us to emphasize the relevance, rather than the abstraction, of EU law. It can be useful to stress the omnipresence of EU influences, and in this regard an activity which could model as good practice is the earlier mentioned 'bring along a cutting' session at Bradford. Such an activity might take more of a central role in the module, for example, through setting certain stories that the group must then follow during the year, or through allowing students to construct bundles of evidence for and against certain points of view. However, any course that requires empirical data collection to be conducted needs to factor in methods training/self- training. Tammy Hervey noted that in Sheffield's Current Issues in EU Law module many of the students who set themselves empirical projects ended up changing their minds, or failing to put together something convincing, because their projects were too ambitious, or poorly time-scaled. This could be an argument for integrating more empirical work into the curriculum generally and early on (such as activities that encourage desk-based evidence gathering) so that students have more than a passing acquaintance with data collection and analysis and are in a better position to conduct more strongly empirically flavoured work later.

Socio-legal approaches are essential for a deeper, more sophisticated engagement with the practical, as well as the academic, aspects of EU law, and they make the subject infinitely more palatable to students who fear turgid, boring texts. On touching on the role of the EU in employment law, at YLS we try to emphasize social context. An activity about the construction of the concept of pregnancy discrimination steers students to think about surrounding national social norms, to question who was involved in defining them, and to finally go behind the judicial curtain to see whether there was any scientific/well-evidenced reasoning for the limitations attached to the concept. As an exercise in gathering appropriate sociological evidence to back up legal arguments, we invited students individually to assume the role of one of the European Commission's social partners and to draft a response to a real consultation. On reflection, we did not give students enough guidance, they were not provided with a model, and for some it turned more into a creative writing task. It might have worked better as a group exercise, with instructions to first of all explain which social partner was chosen and why, and to include evidence to explain why they felt the partner would adopt the position given. However, as to the actual content, many students showed a degree of investigative prowess in producing evidence supporting the argument presented.

Simulation in general, not just in written exercises, is a useful avenue for placing the legal into social context. PBL has some of that effect on a small scale. But bigger simulations can work. We have explored some different simulations, including a mock judicial review (inviting the drafting of preliminary references) and constitutional debates. Samantha Currie at Liverpool suggested that students could demonstrate understanding of the relevance and impact of EU law through some form of communication/dissemination exercise, whereby the target audience could be a national NGO. This could build on an idea already trialled at Liverpool - a piece of coursework that invited students to choose one of seven scenarios on which to write a memo about an EU law issue. The memo task apparently stirred up concern and confusion. To avoid that, the activity would be group-based, possibly drawing upon authentic situations and identifying real interested parties, and in a PBL-like way ensure that research objectives were set and divided up.

A large simulation exercise has been used and documented (Zeff, 2003) in the US for teaching about the EU, with a view to giving students some insight into the different social variables influencing individual actors/Member State representatives. It is described as a simulated European Council, with different students adopting the position of different Member States. This general premise is interesting and could be developed in a number of ways. Rather than devoting the course or a substantial chunk of it to the simulation itself (which is the case in the original, with the participants presented with a particular scenario and invited to debate/negotiate on it), it could form a background, or something drawn into the course at various points, through following real EU news and asking for comments from appropriate representatives during plenaries/lectures. Students might from the start be individually, or in groups, assigned to represent a particular country, or institution, or Directorate General (of the European Commission). Having allocated interests, it would then be possible to require students to address given tasks or issues with that interest in mind, as individuals or as united groups, or to ask them to interact with other representatives in negotiation scenarios, or to have their role as representative to be more of a lens to aid any reflective or own-initiative tasks.

The interactive element is pretty seductive, implying as it does an element of competition. Another trend noted in Bradford was for enthusiasm for certain online, non-assessed formative tasks, because of their competitive element. It risks being resource-heavy and would need careful managing to avoid it losing direction, or sprawling across available contact time. In systems that allow for regular small group work, such as PBL, it might be possible to carve out sections of those sessions for reviews and updates on the simulation; it is of course worth considering whether some form of rotation of roles to allow students to adopt different perspectives is worthwhile. If there were some element of work-swapping or interaction, then the nature of the task would need closer control than simply following the latest real news, so that there was some common background task. Jess Guth suggested that this could be broken into clear stages - stepping stones - of smaller tasks or pieces of information released online. The UKCLE survey and my discussions with colleagues point to some untapped potential with regard to electronic resources, which have typically been exploited by EU teachers for optional 'extra' non-assessed elements, but which could be used to a greater extent in terms of delivering course content/providing the means for assessed work. Colleagues have shown an interest in the idea of incrementally releasing the details of a problem or task, with students having to complete each level before the next details are released. There is an element of this idea in the Sheffield curriculum, which sets an umbrella problem at the outset of the course, with students being invited to work on it during the year as different aspects are covered. It is possible to borrow the creative drive of that practice, and build on it, using technology to tie the release of related information to work performed, and creating online group work space. Given timetable constraints, it could be that the best way to enable group interaction is to do it online. In terms of what the overall background task/issue might be, an ideal subject might be a pending accession from a new Member State - tapping into all the right big-picture questions.

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