Having returned from the holiday break, we have been working on a "Mock Trial" challenge with our students. Since most of our students are currently taking the equivalent of Civics class, this has afforded us the opportunity to connect what they are learning with our Design Challenge. Further, we have even delved in some biology connections such as gel electrophoresis, DNA, and forensic analysis of evidence. When students first saw many of our activities, we heard "I learned this in Ms. Freeman's class" or "I remember this from biology." While students did not quite realize the connections that they were making between their core courses and our design challenge course, my colleagues and I did. We had been very intentional in making sure that we had connections between the core courses and our design challenge course. Prior to the holiday break, our social studies colleague had taught about civil and criminal court as well as a variety of ideas including that defendants are innocent unless proven guilty.
As we started the challenge, students were uncertain about what a mock trial may involve. And to tell the truth so was I. I am classically trained as a science teacher. I did minor in anthropology so I had some connection with analysis of forensic evidence based on my anthropology and chemistry backgrounds. But I had minimal knowledge of our legal system. What I knew I mainly had learned from watching Judge Judy and The People's Court (we live in a tough day time TV market). As we progress through our challenge, my colleagues and I opted to conduct a mock trial where students would try a homicide case. This afforded me the opportunity to learn along with my students, again proving that our design challenge course is very student centered where teachers learn alongside with students. Often, the questions or insights that our students result in expanding what I know as well.
We chose a very challenging case where an undergraduate died while performing an initiation task for a fraternity. The case was very challenging and, at times, we all experienced frustration. While this case was ambitious, the students definitely rose to the occasion as they do with our challenges. Students had to learn to work together and rely on each other. This facilitated increased collaboration and communication. Additionally, our students had to think critically and creatively about the facts of the case. One great example that I shared involved students asking why an alleged murderer would drive the victim to the emergency room to saver her life only to try to kill her later. Many of our students began to evaluate the validity of the information in the court documents and sought to make connections between the various pieces of information. We saw students at all ability levels push themselves to wonder and think about what makes sense. They pondered such questions as "Why would the pledge master want to murder an aspiring pledge" and "Would a college professor really give "A"s for poor work in order to show his commitment to the fraternity?"
Our students also learned the importance of making sure that their witnesses knew their parts and could accurately portray them when interviewed on the witness stand. I saw our prosecution and defense attorneys make decisions on their own about pulling witnesses prior to the court case to review testimony and ensure that the witnesses were well prepared to testify accurately. We had witnesses who had to think on their feet with some of the questions that they were asked in the trial. Perhaps one of the more interesting experiences occurred when the lawyers involved had to make an objection and to provide the rationale. I would dare say that almost all of our students understand what hearsay is and how it used as an objection. We had students who played the role of judge that had to make decisions regarding these objections and explain them to the class. We had also had juries who had to debate the facts and reach a verdict.
As we progressed through the various trials, I saw many students become passionate engaged in representing their assigned side. When verdicts were shared, I saw the passion of the students who won come through as well as the disappointment in the students who lost the case. It was truly an experience that many students will not forget. One of the most important lessons that students said that they learned is the importance of making sure that your case is well prepared and everyone knows the role that they play in this case. This is a powerful artifact of learning and shows the importance of design and challenge based on learning. As an instructor, I could have taught the standards and asked students to share what they learned. They may have remembered what they learned in a few weeks or not. However, based on experiencing a mock trial, students live it. They understand the importance of the burden of proof and how to evaluate evidence. They can clearly articulate what happens in a court case if thorough preparation has not occurred. They also think about what they could do different next time. Essentially, our students reflected on their experience and considered what they could have done differently next time. Although students do not realize it, they were engaged in high levels of metacognition where they reflected on their thinking.
The experiences associated with this challenge definitely provided a new way for our students to learn so much more. Several teachers shared that our students were using the terminology from our design challenge in other classes. Several colleagues also mentioned that they heard students actively discussing the case to try to better understand it and develop new insights. Essentially what they were doing in our design challenge class was spilling over into other areas. One colleague shared that one of our students told him "I know what you all are doing - you are making us use what we learn in other classes. And I like that." This student seems to have figured out the value of design challenge and the benefits associated from cross curricular planning. As we move forward, I continue to be so proud of our students and the great transformations that are occurring within them. Many of students are developing strong leadership qualities in leading their peers while learning to listen and value what others say. Many of students are eager to see what they will be doing and look forward to be challenged to grow. It continues to be so personally gratifying to see that the work we are doing with our students truly matters and is making a difference in their lives. At the end of our course, it continues to be my hope that our students will leave being empowered to solve any kind of problem through collaborating with others while thinking critically and creatively.
Images from our mock trial
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.