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I recently had the mortifying experience of looking back at my torts notes from 1L year. In the section about apportioning damages, I wrote “Calculating Pure v. Modified Comparative Fault,” followed by approximately 20 question marks. I know I am not the only law student to ever tense up at the sight of numbers, as I remember our torts professor had to explain this essential concept multiple times. The importance of preventing nightclub fires somehow stuck with us, but advising our clients on the potential costs of litigation? No thanks.
In recent years, there has been increased national dialogue about math education reform in our elementary and high schools. According to the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, “‘Mathematics for all’ is a goal that has not yet been realized,” in part because the curriculum is “repetitive and lacks depth.” In response to such flaws, one math education reform organization has sought to build “a completely new math curriculum with computer-based computation at its heart.” Computerbasedmath.org eschews the traditional mode of teaching students through rote memorization of the steps to solving abstract problems (ie: factoring polynomials). Instead, the organization suggests that, by allowing computers to handle the actual computing, students can focus on analyzing and understanding real-world math problems. This month, Estonia became the first country to implement these ideas in building a new school statistics course.
This is essentially a shift in focus from the theoretical to the practical, which will better prepare students for the job market. Working in a global economy involves assessment of financial risk and consumer patterns; the vast majority of employees do not need to know the steps for finding the volume of a cone. Such reforms could also greatly benefit law students, who rarely need to do “hard math” calculations to serve their clients. Lawyers need knowledge of, say, apportioning damages, rather than the steps of solving a quadratic equation.
I propose that, in the spirit of math education reform, law schools begin to include a mandatory “Practical Math for Lawyers” course in the 1L curriculum. It will cover concepts such as billing, damages, and sentencing credit for criminal defendants (I bet that anyone who has spent time in a Tennessee jail can explain 2-for-1 credits better than any law student). I only wish that this training had been available to me during law school…as a pass/fail class, of course.
– Joanna Collins
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