I’ve been a huge fan of a teaching website called Khan Academy for a while now, and have pointed it out to a number of teachers and students to the site who are looking for tutorials on math, science, finance, history and more. One of the ideas that has been mulling around in the back of my head ever since I saw my first Khan’s Academy video on linear equations, was that this simple teaching style could easily be adapted by the law library or legal research and writing community to help students, lawyers and lay people understand some of the basics of legal research citation. 

You should really go and watch this 20-minute video of Salmon Khan explaining how he started the academy and how it works… but, since you probably don’t have 20 minutes, I’ll try to explain it in a few sentences.

Perhaps the best method of tutoring someone is through a one-on-one session where the student sits down with the tutor with a sheet of paper and the tutor talks the student through the process. The session should be short and should be narrowly focused on one topic. If the student gets stuck on something, they should be able to get the tutor to go back to that concept and show it to them again. Unlike a classroom method, the student is focused on the material, and not the professor teaching the subject. Here’s a nine-minute long video of Salmon Khan explaining Dividing Fractions (you don’t have to watch the whole thing… just view it for the process of how a simple blackboard and Khan’s voice explaining the concepts work, and then I’ll explain my idea of how this process could work in legal research and writing.)

In many of his interviews, Salmon Khan explains that this type of instructional method works because the student is focused on the concept being taught and the instructor simply becomes a voice inside the student’s head. Khan even mentions that he’s received comments that when students take a test, it is Khan’s voice they hear when they start recalling rules on how to work the problem on the test.

This same type of method could be used to teach something like The Greenbook (Texas Rules of Form) here in Texas, or The Bluebook (A Uniform System of Citation) for most of the US Courts. These books lay out the rules for citing cases and statutes, but quite frankly, they aren’t exactly the easiest things to follow, and you probably learned how to use these books in a class with a hundred other students, taught by a Teaching Assistant who was a 2L and barely knew it himself.

Here’s the opportunity for some forward-thinking law librarian or legal writing instructor… why not take the concepts that are used in the Khan Academy videos and adapt them to explaining these citation rules? Once you’ve made the video of a specific rule, you can share it forever (or until someone decides to rewrite the rule in a significant way.) Brand these videos with your school or association’s brand and suddenly you’ve got yourself a resource that not only helps researchers understand the rules, you’ve also made yourself or your organization a leader in teaching how to properly cite legal documents.

Adapting this style of teaching isn’t limited to proper citation methods. It can be expanded to other legal concepts such as legal research concepts, cite checking, searching a specific database and more. Now it is just a matter of finding the right people to pull something like this together. 

Any suggestions on who that “someone” might be?? Any suggestions on other topics that could benefit from this style of instruction??