National Teaching Fellows

Teaching the new generation of law students – by Becky Huxley-Binns

I like young people.

There, I said it. I like their hope, their reliance on technology, their values, their politics, their apolitics, their potential, their aspirations. I even like the grumpy ones. I even like them when they have no WIFI, and I like them when they use Wikipedia and think it is deep learning. I love the way they make language evolve and I have no clue whether to be insulted or flattered (you are ‘sick’, you are ‘savage’, etc).

I am not entirely sure why I like them so much. They are snowflakes. They lack resilience. They just don’t know so very much. They don’t know what I know I knew when I was young, a million years ago. But do you know what, they know different stuff to me and they know it differently.

Statua Lustitiae
Deval Kulshrestha, Statua Lustitiae CC BY-SA 4.0

Perhaps it is because my dad was so funny and facetious about ‘young people today’ when I was growing up (him a maturist, me a Gen X) and perhaps because both my parents encouraged me to challenge the status quo, to question norms and generally to be irritating, that generational educational perspectives became something of a research hobby of mine in later life. But perhaps it was one particular ex-colleague of mine, who shall remain nameless, but who moaned (all the time) about students; that they didn’t prepare, they didn’t know how to communicate, they didn’t know life as she saw it, they didn’t know anything. And I always thought, well they do not want to be you. Why cast them in your mould? Why judge them against criteria they would reject? Why don’t you like the students you teach? Mutter mutter mutter…

Alternatively, maybe it is because when I retire, oh happy days, my pension fund will be reliant on the economy being healthy and in order for that I need the next generations to be successful. And to be successful, they will have to adapt to a future the likes of which we have never seen and cannot predict. That realisation, a few years ago, caused a seismic shift in my teaching philosophy. I stopped teaching to models designed 20, 30, 40 more years ago, with subject content as the main (only?) driver behind curriculum design, and started to try to teach students to be more confident in dealing with ambiguity, uncertainty, and change using the content as the context but not the paramount consideration. And I integrated technology into and across all learning activities. As someone famous said, or perhaps it was a meme on Facebook, if students cannot learn the way we teach, we should teach the way they learn.

And the more I read about gen Y and gen Z, the more I like them. Gen Z’s are the ones coming into university undergraduate programmes now. They were born after Google was created. They are the same age as or younger than Wikipedia. Smart phones pre-date them, so they do not really think of phones as technology at all. The oldest Gen Z might, just might, remember the start of the global recession, but all of them have been brought up in the aftermath of it and through austerity. They are finally more frugal than their older compatriots, the millennial. Gen Z do not remember 9/11, and will not remember being able to take water through security at an airport. They do not think that texting, emailing, snap-chatting, What’s-apping, Instagramming particularly novel, but rather routine and utterly normal. They do not use Facebook, they are not that old. They are told HE used to be free but they know they will pay, and pay a lot, and for a long time.

Because I like Gen Z so much, I wish I could make things easier for them.

  • Like the cost of housing, and the likelihood they could get on the housing ladder.
  • Like relieving the debt burden from their investments in their University experience (it is little wonder so many are actively looking for work-based education like apprenticeships is it? Add the benefits of the levy for employers to that, and whence Universities eh? #justsaying).
  • Like reassuring them Brexit will be OK.
  • Like Trump. I have no idea how to solve that problem but I wish I could, for all of us, but mostly for gen Z who look at the world, and their place in it and their future in it, and despair.

But I can make life a little easier for them. I can encourage colleagues across the sector to reflect on curricular and co- and extra-curricular demands on students and think about the extent to which they are necessary, sufficient and desirable, for future generations. Yes, I know that means we have to review the purpose of HE, which is fine. Can we review the purpose of HE as the student sees it please? Not as we do or (worse) as we did when we lived through it. We are here to support their learning for their futures. Can we make sure that when we focus on what we teach we spend as long thinking about how we teach it? And how we can integrate technology into the learning journey? Can we acknowledge that students will and do use Google and Wikipedia and YouTube to learn; and can we help them develop beyond those sources of information, rather than pretend (or rather sillily insist) they do not exist? Can we look to the most innovative and successful businesses and adopt their practices into our own for our students’ good? Not only in physical and virtual environments, but not ignoring physical and virtual environments, but also by letting the presence of, the cultures of, the expectations and the values of Gen Z change the culture and expectations and values of higher education itself. Institutionally and systemically, let the students make us better for the students’ sake.

Prof. Becky Huxley Binns

I am a Professor of Legal Education and Vice-Provost, Academic Enhancement, at the University of Law. I previously held a Chair in Legal Education and was Co-Director of the Nottingham Law School Centre for Legal Education at Nottingham Trent University. I am very experienced at  teaching all levels of legal education from GCSE to Doctorate level. I was Law Teacher of the  Year in 2010 (nominated by students). I am a member of the UK Teaching Excellence Awards  Advisory Panel, the HEFCE Postgraduate Information Steering group, the HEA Global Teaching Excellence Award (GTEA) Strategy Group, and I was  Chair of the UK Quality Assurance Agency Law Subject Benchmark Statement Review Group  2015. I became a National Teaching Fellow in 2012 and am Chair-elect of the Committee for the Association of National Teaching Fellows.




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