Stone Soup:  A Thousand Great Chefs


In June, Rafael Gely and I, the co-directors of the Stone Soup Project, decided to shift our approach from our original plan of a centralized database to a decentralized set of experimental efforts to produce knowledge about actual practice – aka letting a thousand chefs cook.

I recently talked with many of the faculty who have used Stone Soup in their courses this semester.  The revised plan has worked really, really well as colleagues whipped up great dishes satisfying educational appetites of hungry students.  (This is almost the last cheesy food metaphor in this post.)

A number of faculty are already planning to use Stone Soup in their courses next semester.  For two reasons, I am writing to encourage you to consider doing so too if you hadn’t planned on it.

First, I believe that your students would really enjoy and value the experience – and you would too.

Second, in this first full academic year of the project, we are asking lots of colleagues to use some Stone Soup assignment or activity in your courses so that we can learn from many different people’s experiences.  We are collecting and disseminating colleagues’ assessments of their experiences to help people have more confidence about including it in their courses in the future.  So you would make a contribution to the Stone Soup if you would use it this coming semester and share your experiences and advice.

In the coming weeks, Stone Soup colleagues will write up assessments of their experiences, which will be posted on the Indisputably blog and the Stone Soup website.

In the meantime, here are some general observations about their experiences, followed by some advice about how you and your students might make Stone Soup together in your courses.

Experiences With Stone Soup

Great Variety.  Colleagues have used Stone Soup in a variety of courses and they tailored their assignments to fit their courses, ranging from large survey courses with a lot of students to small clinic courses and others in between.

Great Enthusiasm.  Virtually everyone I talked with said that students loved the assignments.  Since the bulk of legal education focuses on theory, students treasured the chance to talk with people about how things actually work in the real world.  Some faculty were surprised that students took their assignment so seriously.  Faculty generally plan to use their assignments again, sometimes with some tweaks.

Interviews and Observations.  Having students observe actual dispute resolution processes is ideal, but often this is hard to arrange in courses other than clinics and externships.  So we encouraged faculty to assign students to conduct interviews, which is what most faculty did.  Some faculty had students do observations, sometimes followed up by interviews.

Interview Subjects.  Assignments varied about the type of subjects that students were to interview.  Some focused on lawyers and mediators, while others left it open to include others negotiating in their personal and professional lives.  For example, one person was in the latter group and his students interviewed an unbelievable variety of people about their negotiations.  He also assigned them to do 3-6 interviews, though faculty typically assigned their students to do only one interview.  Generally, students didn’t have problems recruiting subjects, though some students needed help from faculty to do so.

Topic Selection.  Some faculty gave students wide discretion to ask about any issues covered in their courses.  Others gave more specific direction.  In a clinic course, after the initial training, the instructor elicited a fabulous list of questions that students wanted to ask and they used that list as a common interview protocol.  In a mediation course, one colleague assigned students to observe mediations and interview mediators, focusing on a set of questions about prediction of court outcomes and related mediation techniques.

Materials Used for Assignments.  Some colleagues used the Stone Soup materials we developed with little or no modification.  Others developed new materials specifically for their courses.

Theory and Practice.  Many students were gratified to learn that people actually do in practice what the students learned in class.  Others were flabbergasted when they found that practice significantly deviated from the theory.

Timing.  In some courses, students were required to complete the assignment during the middle of the semester, and other faculty had students do it at the end.  Several colleagues said that when they do this again, they will have students complete their assignments earlier in the semester.

Class Discussion.  Some faculty devoted class time to discussing what students learned from this assignment.  This sometimes produced insights that went beyond what students described in their papers.

Not Seeking IRB Approval.  Faculty generally didn’t ask for IRB approval of their assignments because they were solely for teaching (and not research), which is not subject to IRB authority.

Suggestions for Using Stone Soup Assignments

Reflecting on colleagues’ Stone Soup experiences, here are some suggestions to consider.

Tailor Assignments to Achieve Your Teaching Objectives.  This suggestion is from Teaching 101.  Stone Soup is so flexible that you really can fit it to what you want students to get from your courses.

Start Early and Set Deadline Before the End of the Semester.  It can take time to set up interviews, which sometimes fall through or need to be rescheduled.  So if you build in some slack, you can avoid some anxiety and problems.

Prepare Students to Do Good Interviews.  Although we developed a document with guidance for students to conduct interviews, several people said that they would spend more time preparing students to do interviews (which obviously is a critically-important skill for lawyers and neutrals).  You might coach them on good interviewing skills and perhaps role-play having students ask questions as if you were an interview subject.

Give Students Clear Direction in Selecting Topics.  Some faculty gave students broad discretion to select their topics, which resulted in some good papers – but also left some students floundering.  Some faculty are considering giving more direction in the topics that students must address in their assignments.

Assign Students to Focus on Preparation in Dispute Resolution.  Everyone says that preparation is important in law and dispute resolution.  But empirical research on actual cases shows that lawyers and litigants do an abysmal job of evaluating cases for trial, often rejecting offers that are more favorable to them than the ultimate trial outcome.  There is a lot to learn about how people evaluate cases to prepare for ADR.  I suggested a list of questions about case evaluation that you might assign students to explore in Stone Soup assignments.

Require Students to Focus on Actual Cases.  Some students wrote about interview subjects’ general philosophies and procedures.  While this is helpful to understand people’s thinking, this may create misleading impressions about actual behavior because of common cognitive biases.  Having students ask about all or part of actual cases, while not immune from distortion, is more likely to produce good information about the way people actually behave.

Remind Students That the Goal is to Test Theory, Not Necessarily Validate It.  Tell students to look for anything that seems seem to fit the theory they learn in your course – and also anything that seems to deviate from the theory.  In other words, they should not assume that the subjects’ experience neatly fits the theory.

Discuss Papers in Class.  Discussing papers in class can yield insights not included in students’ papers and also enable them to learn from each others’ experiences.

Will You Help Us Make Stone Soup Next Semester?

Rafael and I are so excited that our plan to encourage colleagues to use Stone Soup is working even better than we expected.  This is just the beginning and we invite you to join the feast.

We know that it can be hard to make changes in a course, especially if you feel that it “ain’t broke.”  People usually can’t include everything they want and adding something new may require you to omit something else that you like.  Instructors should consider their priorities and whether Stone Soup makes sense for them.

We plan to update our roster of the inaugural cohort of Stone Soup faculty and we would love to add you.  Please let me know if you will join us.

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