Best Practice in Court Education

This post will discuss underpinning principles of best practice in court education programs and resources. It will address the role of curriculum and learning outcomes along with contextual, engaging and relevant content. A second post will examine equity, diversity, accessibility and inclusivity best practice.

To define best practice in court education for school students the Virtual Churchill Court Education Project (the project)  considered a broad set of sources. Articulation of the principles listed below was informed by analysis of; in person interviews with court education providers, teacher and student resources, academic literature and government publications.

Curriculum and Learning Outcomes

Court education content located within broader civics curricula. Throughout the common law world  curricula emphasises teaching the law via the concepts of;  legal history, democratic processes, law-making, the operation of the legal system, rights and responsibilities and the function of courts. Local and national curriculum standards and content are explicitly integrated into subject syllabuses in some countries including Australia.

Differences in syllabus emphasis and content between jurisdictions mean that in order to be useful to teachers and their students resources may require adaptation.

Best practice education programs and and  resources are:

  • mapped to curriculum
  • explicitly linked to the learning outcomes in the relevant syllabuses
International Example

Based in Boston Massachusetts, Discovering Justice provides a suite of mock trial mini units for Grades 1-5. Each mini unit is mapped to the state’s MA History and Social Science framework.

Australian Example

The County Court of Victoria publishes Justice in Action: A Study Guide for Teachers. The guide is designed to align with the outcomes and content of the VCE Legal Studies Syllabus.

Contextual, Engaging and Relevant Content

…if community members have an understanding of legal rights and responsibilities, this contributes to active citizenship and social cohesion – and helps strengthen civil society. Advice Services Alliance Citizenship Foundation Legal Action Group, Towards a National Strategy for Public Legal Education- a discussion paper, September 2004, p.2

Widespread ongoing debate about student engagement with civic institutions and their role of courts focuses on their understanding of democracy, government and law. The recent release of the Australian National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship National Report 2019  adds to the literature assessing  student engagement. In the report only 38 percent of Year 10 students (15 -16 yr olds) demonstrated proficient “…awareness of the connection between fundamental principles (such as fairness) and their manifestation in rules and laws.” p 24.

This debate is not restricted to Australia. Governments and prominent academic institutions in the United Kingdom , the United States of America, and Canada have all highlighted a need to remedy the lack of civic knowledge in young people by provision of improved education programs.

All organisations involved in the project interviews discussed the effect of this debate on the provision of their programs. The need to improve engagement in young people was highlighted as the primary goal of all organisations. They identified that the best practice response was to ensure that their programs remain relevant to students lived experience.

Louise Dubé, Executive Director of iCivics discusses this need in her article ‘Why am I here’:

We are not likely to be engaged in deep lasting learning without finding personal relevance in the process.  Relevance is not direct applicability of what is learned but rather the connection between your identity and the instructional purpose.

Relevance is directly linked to social context. Some students live in communities who negative interactions with the legal system. Others have obtained all of their understanding of law and legal institutions from television and movies. The social context of students can be accommodated by careful consideration of  “intent and impact” (Carrie Ray- Hill) when designing resources and  programs.

Students care about their communities. They want to have a positive impact on the people and places around them.  Averill Kelley, Equity in Civic Education — Improving How We Teach Black and LatinX Students in Low-Income Areas

Almost all court education programs are conducted in the school context as a part of a broader civics curriculum. However, experiential learning programs involving in person contact with court staff conducted in court buildings provide deeper learning and improved engagement. These include; court tours, mock trial competitions, debate days and career days.

Best practice education programs and resources are:

  • relevant to students interests, community and lived experience
  • promote engagement through a variety of pedagogical strategies
  • situated within a social context that promotes learning and positive experiences
International Example

The United States Federal Court’s Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions program and resources directly reflect students’ life experience through a civility self-reflection exercise and reality check quiz. It emphasises the development of skills that students can utilise in multiple social contexts.

Australian Example

At the Law Society of Western Australia their Francis Burt Law Education Programme publishes a 2020 resource for teachers which discusses the issue of ‘Kids in Jail’ . Juvenile incarceration and the campaign to Raise the Age of criminal responsibility from 10  to 14 years old is a relevant and engaging issue for many West Australian students and their communities.

Image Credit: Original artwork by Billy Lamb reproduced with permission.