What I learned from jury duty

A few weeks ago I served on a jury for the first time (I was Juror #3). It was a murder case, and testimony took about a week and a half. I learned a great deal, but what really came through to me relates to my teaching.

We listened to arguments and testimony from 9 am to 4:30 pm, with 90 minutes for lunch and two 15 minute breaks. That’s in a chair, with a polite expression on our faces, for hours every day. We could take notes, but the notes had to stay in the courtroom and were destroyed after the trial. After eight full days of listening and not being allowed to talk about the case to anyone, including each other, we were put in a small room for deliberations.

W. S. Gilbert’s illustration for “Now, Jurymen, hear my advice” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, c 1890


My mother told me there are only two major responsibilities that citizens have in a democracy: voting, and serving on a jury. In order to be an educated voter, we must be able to read and critically analyze what we read, hear and see among the elements influencing our vote. To be a juror, I came to understand, we must be able to listen to lecturing for many hours, using our minds both during and after the lecture to process verbal information, all while considering veracity, tone, and message.

There was no group activity or “active learning” until deliberations,and when that time came much depended on our memory or notes, and on our processing of what we’d be given by the attorneys and witnesses. On top of that, we had the court’s instructions, which set firm parameters by which we were to process the information.

In other words, it is a lecture/test model.

Radcliffe, 1954

For some time, I have been questioning the wisdom of active learning pedagogy, both in the classroom and in an online environment. While adopting many of the methods of active learning over the years, and trying enthusiastically to increase student participation and engagement, I have always had an awareness of what was being lost through those methods. And as I’ve watched our culture get sucked into the internet, and participated fully in the discussion of what that does to education, I have become even more concerned.

The ability to listen to testimony, which goes back centuries, and make judgements, is at the heart of justice. The ability to read critically is the heart of becoming an informed citizen. We must foster these skills and demand them of our students. Yet I am guilty of the conversational lecture and discussion, where their participation with me helps create new knowledge. I am addicted to finding ways for them to fully engage the class. My lectures are down to about 20 minutes. I’ve catered to their attention span, their difficulties reading, and their lack of mental exercise, all while being careful not to dumb down my classes below the college level.

Instead, I should be emphasizing deep reading and lecture listening (and good note-taking), followed by conclusions, decisions, or judgements that they develop based on that input. It sounds medieval. It is medieval. It’s also my responsibility. Pedagogical shift coming up…

One thought on “What I learned from jury duty

  1. This is a fascinating post Lisa. It has made me wonder how the jurors that don’t have your listening and critical thinking skills, not to mention note-taking skills, managed. I myself have a terrible memory, which has made me realise that were I to sit on a jury, justice might depend on my note-taking ability. A sobering thought!

    A very thought-provoking post. I am still thinking about the implications for education. Thanks!


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