Problem-Based Learning at UVic Law

Educating the whole lawyer

Problem-Based Learning at UVic Law

A common thread tying debates in the academy and practice today is a shared desire to “educate the whole lawyer.” Across spaces of legal learning, questions of how to ensure deep engagement with ethical questions, to centre concerns with access to justice, and to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (“TRC”) are pressing and real.

And, while there are incredible steps being taken across legal cir­cles to incorporate more oppor­tunities for experiential learning, we are often held back by conversations, lacking in nuance, about a need for more “skills” training. This is particularly so in the context of the first-year curriculum in law school.

These questions prompted one constitutional law professor to change their course to centre principles of “problem-based learning.” After consultations with colleagues in the academy and the Bar, alongside a paradigm shifting decision from the Supreme Court of Canada in Canada (AG) v Bedford, and new law from the federal government (Bill C-36) the “problem” the course sought to address was “the problem of prostitution.”

Instead of teaching the course by introducing students to principles of law and then evaluating them by hypothetical problem in December and April, the course began by setting out a complex, social, economic, political, ethical and multi-legal problem. The course was presented to the students as a means through which to assess how to effectively address complex social issues using constitutional law and policy while developing their skills as ethical professionals.

Through problem-based learning, the course addressed some ongoing concerns with introductory legal teaching. The first was how not to compartmentalize federalism, Indigenous laws, and the Charter, three enormous areas of law addressed in constitutional law. By using a thick, messy and boundary-challenging problem like the sex trade the integrated questions of jurisdiction, colonialism, and rights remained present throughout all components of the course.

The second was how to develop skills in first-year students that are integral to the ethical professional: including creativity, imagination, empathy, collaboration, and critical thinking. This entailed challenging the pedagogy used in each class: creating a flipped classroom through podcasts, more guest speakers, visual and literary arts, more access to legal advocates, and more examples of differing forms of legal writing. 

It also meant integrating evaluative methods into the learning of the course, rather than leaving them as a means of assessing a mark at the end. Using assignments that asked students to work together, to write creatively, and ultimately to draft facta that challenged, defended or intervened in a court action on Bill C-36, moved them beyond issue-spotting to problem-solving.

Ultimately, ensuring that the human “problem of prostitution” was before the students made it possible to teach the integrated and difficult questions of federalism, colonialism and rights with heart.

Educating the whole lawyer is a collective endeavor, one that the academy shares with the Bar. Similar work is necessary for responding to the TRC with integrity. Teaching law as a series of integrated problems is one unique way to bring out the best in our students, to have hope in tomorrow’s lawyer and to transform our educators along the way.

… a client’s situation and needs do not come neatly categorized in compartments of contract, tort, common law, statutory law and so on. Real life problems require imagination, creativity and intellectual flexibility.1 

1 Julie Macfarlane and John Manwaring, “Using Problem-Based Learning to Teach First Year Contracts” (1998) 16(2) Journal of Professional Legal Education 271-298 at 277.


Related Articles