Approaching an endeavor in a deep or surface way is an unconscious decision. It depends on many different factors such as the learning conditions, students’ perceptions of those conditions, the learning environment, teachers’ attitude, educational history, motivation, and cultural capital, among others. The factor that has the most influence on students’— unconscious—decision to take a deep or a surface approach to learning is the way we teach. When the boys on the island were free to explore and discover knowledge by themselves, they learned deeply. When Ms. Horrible Harriet Hare lectured and used fear and low grades to motivate students, they learned only superficially.

Most of us teach our disciplines in a very similar way, which is referred to as the signature pedagogy. A signature pedagogy is the predominant teaching method in a program of study across a certain geographical area (Shulman, 2004). Pedagogy is understood in a broad way to include the interactions between teacher and students, the setting, the learning environment, evaluation, and assignments given to students.

Several factors contribute to the widespread adoption of a similar teaching method in a discipline. These include the influence of elite higher education institutions that educate most leading professors, the influence of accrediting agencies that insist that teachers teach in a certain way, and tradition, that is to say, teachers follow the teaching method through which they were taught. Even popular culture plays a role by perpetuating the images of what law school and university teachers should do and look like in class. Unfortunately, the signature pedagogies in law school and criminal justice programs tend to create learning conditions that promote student surface learning.


hr United States law schools, the predominant teaching pedagogy is the case-dialogue method introduced by Harvard Law School dean Christopher Columbus Langdell in the 1870s and immortalized by John Houseman’s personification of Professor Kingsley in The Paper Chase (1973) directed by James Bridges[1].

The case-dialogue method is based on the dissection of edited appellate court cases contained in books known as casebooks. These cases contain the facts, the court’s analysis, and decision. Additionally, they usually include questions about the case and other references. Students are expected to read the cases before class. Unlike the case method and problem-based learning pedagogies used in other programs such as business and medicine where students actually have to solve a problem, students do not solve any problem when reading the cases from the casebook. The case already contains the analysis and resolution by the court. In class, the teacher asks students questions about the cases. The teacher usually starts by asking a student to summarize the facts of the case. Then, the teacher asks the same student or another one to explain the court’s analysis and decision. The bulk of the class is devoted to hypothetical questions about variations of the case and other hypothetical cases about the same legal topic that the teacher makes up or that the teacher borrowed from books, guides, or websites that offer resources for the law teacher. Students answer these questions, and the teacher follows up with new questions about the same hypothetical case or a new one. No one makes any conclusion or summarizes the law, which students have to come up with on their own or in groups outside class when they prepare for the final exam.

Since the 1980’s, North American law schools have been gradually shifting the conception of the law “from a unitary, doctrine-focused, and homogeneous system to a more diversified, open, and plural process, where there is a relatively higher degree of tolerance for alternative perspectives and for the contribution of other disciplines” (Stein, 1991). Although this change in the legal paradigm implied a devaluation of Langdell’s case-dialogue method in academic circles, and despite the efforts of many faculty members and authors in North America, law teaching methodologies persist in following the case-dialogue method in its traditional form or with slight variations (Weston and Cranton, 1986).

  • [1] 'Although tins method derives both from a modified version of the Socratic dialogue and a variation of the case method, the case-dialogue method has little to do with the true spirit of the Socratic method. Unlike the case-dialogue method, the original Socratic method is a shared “dialogue between teacher and students in which both are responsible for pushing the dialogue forward through questionmg. The dialogue facilitator asks probing questions in an effort to expose the values and behefs which frame and support the thoughts and statements of the participants in the inquiry. The inquiry progresses interactively, and the teacher is as much a participant as a guide of the discussion. Furthermore, the inquiry is open-ended. There is no pre-determined argument or terminus to which the teacher attempts to lead the students” (Reich, 2003).
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