PLT: Not a Sausage Factory (or ought not to be)

Industrialised education is quick and economical, but like fast food, it should be part of a balanced diet of blended learning.

In 1967 Otto Peters provided us with a comparative interpretation of industrial production and (distance) education. [1]

In relation to the industrialization of education he observed that traditional individual work changes to production based on the division of labour and the development of mass production and that craft processes become mechanized and automatised.

Consequently, the preparatory phase of production becomes prioritized; work processes become standardized, controlled and measured scientifically.  The production process becomes objectified with each process progressively mechanized.

Obviously there are economic advantages to an industrialized approach to professional education and training.  Producers and end-consumers are keen to reduce the costs of consumption. An industrialized process also holds out the promise of consistency of delivery of content, instruction, assessment and accreditation.  “Quality” is measured empirically to the satisfaction of managers at each phase of production.

Peters observed that the industrialized approach requires the lecturer to standardize delivery of instruction so it is of “the necessary standard that is, at the same time, realistic for as many students as possible”.

This results in a loss of function for the lecturer, “the original role of the lecturer is reduced to that of a consultant whose involvement … manifests itself in periodically recurrent contributions”. Theoretically, according to Peters, if lecturers are occupied in this way, tutors and consultants are free to aid learners by providing motivation, individual support, structuring content for students, dealing with problems etc.

The above appears to assume that the instructional role is divided between lecturers, tutors and consultants.  It is not so clear what is to happen when the lecturer is required to assume all roles.

Peters observe that where instruction is industrialized the personal interactions between lecturer and student are reduced to personal communications with the learner and programmed face-to-face learning events.  These communications become the only opportunity for “subjectively determined variants” in the lecturer’s teaching methods.

It is interesting to contemplate the above in conjunction with Donald Schön’s theory of reflective practice and learning systems. [2, 3]

Schön proposed that “reflection-in-action” and “reflection-on-action” are important to understanding what professionals (including educators, trainers and lawyers) do.  Reflection-in-action can be compared to “thinking on your feet”, whereas reflection-on-action may involve post-action review, journal writing, and/or a feedback session with a mentor or supervisor.

These reflective processes allow us to build up a repertoire of ideas, symbols, key expressions, concrete examples and actions that we can use to prepare for, respond to and reflect on novel or familiar situations.

That repertoire is important for the interactions between a graduate and a trainer, mentor or supervisor.  It requires time to be allocated for the reflective processes and also time to allow for interactions between learner and teacher to express and test components of the repertoire.

For example, a student might submit a piece of written work such as an affidavit for an interlocutory application at court.  The lecturer can provide written feedback marking up the document using track changes in the word processor to provide instruction and commentary.  That is certainly a form of interaction.

But can the lecturer assume that the student will understand the feedback?  And can the student assume she or he understands what the feedback is to mean?

It seems to me there needs to be a reflective exchange between the parties to build up the repertoire of shared understandings if the activity is to progress past a “tick a box” formative assessment and to advance to a demonstrable knowledge of information and procedures.

Those interactions would necessarily be variable depending on each party’s needs, contexts and understandings.

I submit that components of the delivery of instruction can be “industrialized” to realise improved efficiencies for all.  However that does not cover all that is necessary and desirable to achieve real learning and competency in professional skills and knowledge.  To achieve that we need a well balanced diet of blended instructional design and learning experiences.


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1.         Peters, O., Distance education and industrial production: a comparative interpretation in outine, in Distance Education: International Perspectives, D. Stewart, D. Keegan, and B. Holmberg, Editors. 1983, Croom Helm Routledge: London and New York. p. 95-113.

2.         Schön, D.A., Educating the reflective practitioner. 1st pbk. print. ed. Jossey-Bass higher education series. 1990, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. xvii, 355 p .

3.         Schön, D.A., Reflective practitioner : how professionals think in action. New ed. 1995, Aldershot, England: Arena. 374 p.


4 thoughts on “PLT: Not a Sausage Factory (or ought not to be)”

  1. Hi L, I think I have stopped the comments from ‘nesting’ now, so there should be more room on the screen. I am still tinkering with this WordPress interface. Regarding scaffolding, there was some discussion about this in the Q&A session after my presentation on this at the recent APLEC conference in Hobart. One participant commented along the lines that APLEC could think about this issue some more during the current review of competency standards for PLT. There was also some discussion about just how much scaffolding there should be. I think it is important to bear in mind that the TLOs and the NCS reflect learning objectives at the ‘global’ level, and that instructional objectives, and teaching and learning objectives, designed in contemplation of students’ levels of cognitive processing, and the different knowledge domains, can achieve a lot in setting up the scaffolding in a practical way. In my opinion, it does require a methodical approach, but it is also desirable to leave wriggle room for flexibility and innovation. In some ways, it is a bit like ethical decision-making – it is helpful to have a process that will provide you with an account of the decision-making, that can be communicated and understood and reviewed.

  2. Dear KG, thank you so much for this magnum opus! I haven’t read the papers but will do in due season. I am sure your reply will benefit all in this circle. Talking of season, have a fantastic Christmas and New Year.

    Interesting that the TLOs and the NCSs emphasise different knowledge and skills set. The foundational skills should ‘scaffold’ graduate learning, not show such disparaties. Your graphs are excellent in revealing this fundamental problem. Critical thinking needs to continue throughout legal life and not stop at the undergraduate level, most importantly, these skills should be further refined at graduate level.
    I think we should have an alternative to ELL because the vocabulary that is used in the analysis (for improving PLT) tends to shape the process and outcome. The term ELL together with the disparity between TLOs and NCSs appear to suggest that graduates are taken as ‘tabula rasa’ when it comes to PTL.

    By the way, is it possible to adjust the space for responses here, a small indent on the LHS margin would be nice, instead of shrinking quickly — is this intended?

  3. Welcome back! When I wrote this post I was thinking quite a bit about Otto Peters’ ideas on the industrialisation of education, and given my own position at the time, I was thinking about this from the PLT teachers’ point of view. I was, (and still am), a bit concerned that in an industrialised model, teachers can become ‘battery hens’ doing repetitive work, with potentially negative effects on the quality of the teaching and of the learning and teaching experience.

    I agree with you that law graduates are not ‘tabula rasa’- and this is significant in more than one way. Each individual has their own contribution to make to their own learning, and to their work as lawyers, not least their personal beliefs and attributes, for example. In a perfect world, teaching and learning works with those contributions.

    The challenge posed by the industrial model, that might involve Taylorist and performativist aspects, is to allocate sufficient resources (time, space, to start with), to that kind of reflective teaching and learning.
    (I am now thinking about Schon’s reflective practitioner work in the context of the clinical school – in his work you see examples of one-to-one exchanges between learner and teacher – his colleague, Argyris, was well known for being able to accomplish similar teaching and learning experiences with larger groups – those exchanges need time and space in which to occur – they also need teachers who are equipped with the ability to work with those exchanges)

    I think that ‘entry-level lawyer’ is a somewhat inelegant and possibly imprecise term; however, it is the term that is used in the PLT competency standards, and that is the reason why I use it, when referencing that structure.

    I am interested in your reference to the ‘critical thinking’ skill. The Australian Threshold Learning Outcomes (TLOs) for the bachelor of law degree include ‘Thinking Skills’ at TLO 3. A background statement to TLO 3 is set out in: Kift, S & Israel, M 2010, Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Project – Bachelor of Laws – Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Statement, Australian Learning and Teaching Council, Strawberry Hills, NSW, Australia, at page 17 (the LTAS document). The background statement in the LTAS document includes references to ‘critical thinking’:

    TLO 3 is aligned with the Australian Qualifications Framework Level 7 (Bachelor Degree, AQF draft 30/09/10) requirement that graduates be able to think both creatively and critically “in identifying and solving problems with intellectual independence” and will have the “cognitive skills to critically review, analyse, consolidate and synthesise knowledge”. Its implementation may also align with the AQF Level 8 (Bachelor Honours Degree, AQF draft 30/09/10) requirement that graduates will be able to “identify and provide solutions to complex problems with intellectual independence” and will be able to “exercise critical thinking and judgement in developing new understanding”. It accords with the Council of Australian Law Deans (CALD) Standards’ intention that curricula develop graduates who “engage with the law in an analytical and critical way”. (footnotes removed)

    So, at present, ‘critical thinking’ is supposed to be included as a ‘foundational competency’ learning outcome, at conclusion of the bachelor of laws degree. (You might be interested in looking at some of my exploratory Prezi visualisations that compare the national competency standards weighting of lawyers’ skills with those of the TLOs)

    In relation to critical thinking directed toward changing the legal system (from a legal education point of view), you might be interested in Matthew Ball’s work. Ball uses Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’ to compare a critical legal studies narrative, and legal pedagogical narrative, of power relations in legal education. I think his work very interesting:

    Ball, M 2011, ‘Governing Depression in Australian Legal Education: Power, Psychology and Advanced Liberal Government’, Legal Education Review, vol. 21, pp. 277-301.

    Ball, M 2007, ‘The Construction of the Legal Identity: Governmentality in Australian Legal Education’, Queensland University of Technology Law & Justice Journal, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 444-63.

    Ball, MJ 2012, ‘Power in legal education: a (new) critical and analytical approach’, QUT Law and Justice Journal, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 157-77.

    Ball, M 2011, ‘Self-Government and the Fashioning of Resilient Personae: Legal Education, Criminal Justice, and the Government of Mental Health’, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 97-111.

    Ball, M 2010, ‘Legal Education and the ‘Idealistic Student’: Using Foucault to Unpack the Critical Legal Narrative’, Monash University Law Review, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 80-107.

  4. Here I am again, love that you’re doing about improving PLT. This blog post goes with ‘support for Graduate….’ And perhaps could be merged. The ‘sausage factory’ analogy is not as denigrating as it may sound, it all depends on the ingredients, I suppose, the gourmet kind are very delectable. But I agree with you that we need a balanced PLT diet of blended learning experiences. Your research is also beneficial for the pre-admission programs and the legal profession generally, what goes on in the courts, the setting and the actors…public perceptions, actually, the whole adversarial system needs more than a facelift. It would seem a pity to improve the learning experiences of law graduates — I don’t like the term’entry level lawyer ELL’ but this is another debate — when the actual content of what they are learning is questionable. I think one of the skills that should be added the repertoire is critical thinking, towards changing the legal system, not simply accept the status quo; also we must not assume that Graduates are pacive ‘tabula rasa’ to be processed. I guess this where the sausage factory analogy fails.

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