Thinking analytically, or how cabbage, candles, and cannibals may help teach legal research process

Legal research instructors are often working on the best way to present the concept of the research process, especially the circuitous route that any individual process may take.  Considering that, the most basic precept of legal research to pass on to students may be problem solving.  Looking for other thoughts, I reviewed several different articles looking at designing courses, assignments and skills.*

All of these are amazing resources, but none quite addressed the issue of how to present problem solving.  I wanted a short and engaging activity that I could conduct and debrief with students at all skill stages.  The optimum activity would allow first through third year students (as well as alumni or new associates) to look at the critical thinking skills needed to work through a research problem with new eyes, a fresh approach.

I looked at some team building skills.  Those were not exactly right either.  A colleague who knew about my quest saw Brain Games.  There we found the inspiration for some short problems that we thought might work.

Here are some of the problems: Wolf, Sheep and Cabbage, Family Crisis (the bridge problem), Cannibals and Missionaries, Duncker’s Candle Problem (spoiler – don’t look past the picture before you try it if you don’t want the answer immediately), maybe something like Bulls and Cows or the 9 Dot Problem.  Try them, they’re fun!  And that fun is part of why to use them.  Between presentations on research resources or in between in-class legal research exercises, these exercises serve as transitions and something to get the energy of the class flowing again.

But fun and energy are not the only reasons to use them.  There are others.  If the students do work in small groups to solve them (2-4), they will talk through the process of why various strategies work or do not work.  This is the kind of strategic thinking that students should do when doing legal research.  Also, these puzzles stimulate discussion on how puzzle solving is a lot like legal research.  There are many similarities between these kind of mind puzzles and the research process:  the need to stop and think for a minute before starting (the obvious starting point may not be the best starting point); the need to try a couple of things to see if they work; and the need to stop and reassess whether a strategy is working.

Although this is still in the planning stages, we are excited to try it and will have a sample group work through it next week.  We think the analogy may hold true for other games – how many of us had to be eaten by a grue, had to go back to look at the plaque in the tower room, or had to backtrack to find the Paparazzi’s diary before we were able to get through a video game?  These games also involve starting, looking at information gained, thinking of a different approach and trying again.  This should give students guidance on research, thinking of it as a puzzle or mission.  In that mission or puzzle, there are starting points, some paths will be dead ends, and there may need to be some backtracking or stepping back to reevaluate strategy.

Summer is always a fun time to try some new techniques like these – are you trying out anything new this summer or preparing it for the fall?

*To the extent you haven’t read them, these are some I reviewed this week:

Kristin B. Gerdy, Teacher, Coach, Cheerleader, and Judge: Promoting Learning through Learner-Centered Assessment, 94 Law Libr. J. 59 (2002);

Yasmin Sokkar Harker, “Information Is Cheap, but Meaning Is Expensive”: Building Analytical Skill into Legal Research Instruction, 105 Law Libr. J. 79 (2013);

Meg Butler, Resource-Based Learning and Course Design: A Brief Theoretical, 104 Law Libr. J. 219 (2012); and

Matthew C. Cordon, Task Mastery in Legal Research Instruction, 103 Law Libr. J. 395 (2011).


About Shawn Friend

This entry was posted in Legal Research Instruction, Planning and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s