Techniques for innovation in constitutional law lecture rooms

By Silvia Romboli

The university education system faces a major challenge: how to train professionally qualified citizens by providing an adequate intellectual and technical education.

This challenge implies that university students must acquire key instrumental skills, such as the abilities to analyse, synthesise, organise and plan, as well as solve problems and make informed decisions.

In the field of law, students can enhance their skills and knowledge when they combine theoretical classes with other subjects that go beyond exclusively legal areas.

Expanding knowledge to other areas favours the development of complementary skills, including:

  • Ability to apply knowledge in the field.
  • Research skills.
  • Ability to learn.
  • Ability to adapt to new situations.
  • Creativity and leadership.
  • Ability to work independently.
  • Ability to design and manage projects.

In law studies, combining lectures with practical classes to develop complementary skills might seem to many readers a natural occurrence. But this was not always the case.

Synergy between theory and practice in Spanish law degree courses is a relatively recent conquest, which was introduced with the Bologna process at the end of the last century and was consolidated in 2010 with the Bologna Declaration.

The standardisation of degree studies highlighted shortcomings in law education. Traditionally, this degree focused on methods such as memorisation and lectures, rather than the active participation by students in tasks for strengthening theoretical knowledge and the development of skills that improve the content assimilation.

Traditional techniques and methods of teaching constitutional law have the potential to activate innovation

With the emergence of the Bologna Plan, it was decided to accompany theoretical classes with practical sessions in which the ability to apply theoretical knowledge to real experiences was enhanced; for example, through process simulations, or the study and resolution of cases, as well as student participation in roundtables and seminars.

This novel system for teaching law has meant rethinking the role of the lecturer, who has had to investigate innovative teaching methods.

It has also involved a transition for students – who have changed from playing an exclusively passive role to participating independently during sessions.

Ideas for improving innovation in law lecture halls

Traditional techniques and methods of teaching constitutional law have the potential to activate innovation in the lecture hall. Used differently, they can become useful tools that meet the current expectations of students.

To improve traditional methods, there are two main axes that can stimulate reflection on various techniques and methodologies: firstly, the importance of language, and secondly, the use of interdisciplinary techniques.

Better understanding of legal language 

Law has its own "legalese" language, with a vocabulary that is only used by legal professionals. The existence of these words, and peculiar ways of constructing sentences and proposing reasoning, is the first "bump" that all students face at the beginning of their law studies (and is something that lecturers must consider when preparing practical sessions).

To broaden the understanding of legal language in constitutional law classes it may be helpful to include sessions for students to use and learn this new language.

Legal culture helps students accept that some questions cannot be answered with absolute certainty

In addition to the study of manuals, practical activities could also include the study of doctrinal texts with a moderately complex lexical level – accompanied by questions that focus students on tasks related to learning the lexicon. 

For this, a traditional method could be used (reading the arguments of a scientific doctrine), but with a partially new and much more explicit purpose. 

The first time I used this method, the results were, unfortunately, surprising in the negative sense. I proposed a text to a first-year group that was slightly more difficult than the constitutional manual they were using. The students were asked to underline three words or concepts that they could not understand.

The text contained some unusual terms and ideas whose meanings would be difficult for first-year students (such as "rationalist iusnaturalism"). However, more than half of the students underlined words such as "troupe" or "impediment." 

With this example, the need to enrich the vocabulary of students was clearly revealed.

Another skill that can be usefully developed in practical sessions is legal culture and the specific language of constitutional law. This helps students accept that some questions cannot be answered with absolute certainty. They will see that there are profound differences between constitutional interpretations made from doctrine, by ordinary judges and by constitutional courts.

In practical classes, it may be effective to consider contradictory texts

To broaden the view of students, it is important to develop practice sessions in which students familiarise themselves with the "living" nature of constitutional law and the differences between the formal constitution and constitutional reality. As we all know, the jurisprudence of the constitutional court may change (and has changed) on the same subject.

In practical classes, it may be effective to consider "contradictory" texts, for example, readings followed by an in-class analysis of articles by authors who disagree on concepts or themes.

Even less traditional activities can also be organised. For example, two lecturers could stimulate discussion by debating in front of the class a topic on which they disagree. 

This exercise would show students that valid ideas and interpretations do not always coincide.

Encouraging interdisciplinary practices

I am convinced that teaching law cannot be reduced to the study of the norms in the legal system. In the study of constitutional law, the importance of other social sciences such as history, philosophy, economics, literature, as well as artistic disciplines such as music and cinema, cannot be denied.

In the study of law it is not necessary to detach oneself from legal methods and concepts, but these should be complemented with studies of other disciplines (which provide tools, knowledge and ways of reasoning other than those of the jurist approach) and this practice greatly enhances the capabilities of students.

Teaching law cannot be reduced to the study of the norms in the legal system

This reasoning can be applied in practical sessions in constitutional law courses, in which students learn different content and reflection methods that will strengthen the skills acquired. 

In this way, the abilities of students are enhanced and the subject gains in attractiveness, since collaboration between law and other disciplines (especially when they are artistic, such as music and cinema) heightens student interest.

However, we must not forget that this interdisciplinary approach cannot replace the profound theoretical study of law, nor the use of classical practice techniques in constitutional law. 

Interdisciplinary techniques must be a reinforcement and support that accompany and complement traditional practices.

This article is based on research results published in Docencia y Derecho.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.