I’ve been in this justice education game for a while now. I’ve participated in programming for thousands of students, in classrooms, courthouse and communities. While developing this wealth of experience I’ve frequently contemplated the question of whether feedback or evaluation given by justice sector volunteers (“JSVs” -lawyers, judges and justices of the peace) is appropriate and meaningful. JSVs are not educators, nor are they trained in effective assessment for a youth audience. Youth participants are not made aware of the evaluative criteria in advance, and the content is difficult to judge because it’s so subjective. Take for example a mock trial program – I mean, just because you won your mock trial does not mean you’re the better advocate and stylistically what appeals to one judge may not appeal to another. Don’t even get me started on how our personal lens or preferences colour our opinions on what makes an effective advocate. If the purpose of experiential programming is to learn through the experience, why do we need to bother giving feedback at all? Wouldn’t it be better to just allow the learning to occur? Questions, questions, questions!
In Mystery of Iniquity Lauryn Hill sang that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Okay, so Lauryn wasn’t the 1st to say that. The saying dates back to around 1150, attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) who said, loosely translated “hell is full of good intentions or desires”. Where was I going with this…oh yeah, sometimes – well intentioned volunteers shower program participants with praise that is absolutely unwarranted, and the youth know it. So now you have a young person that has not prepared, or made any effort (besides attending which, on its own is a great thing in some cases but that isn’t the issue at hand) being told they were excellent, and did a great job. What’s the message here? What if another student has worked really hard and then gets similar feedback – is it as valuable? Does that instil trust? Is the bar really that low? It’s not the JSVs’ fault really, they want to be encouraging, don’t want to call people out, sometimes they just genuinely don’t know what to say in these circumstances. Maybe it’s our fault, should be we providing training for our JSVs on what how to give feedback?
As many times as I’ve seen feedback go wrong; I’ve also seen it be amazingly effective. When I started at OJEN, my training included attending a variety of mock trials. In one program youth from one of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods were presenting in a mock trial with Justice Kofi Barnes presiding. Prior to the mock trial getting started, the courtroom was chaotic; the young person playing the accused and his defence team were intimidating the witnesses. One witness was refusing to participate, he was close to tears. Youth workers scurried around dealing with behaviour issues and comforting/reassuring participants. The courtroom was clouded in nervous energy and I wondered how this pandemonium was going to transition into an orderly mock trial. Sure enough, everyone calmed down and when Justice Barnes entered the room the proceeds commenced. The Crown was prepared and polished. The defence ill equipped and under prepared, so much so that the accused, abandoned the script and became a hostile witness to his own counsel. The trial ended and Justice Barnes gave his judgement. He then followed up with feedback. He referred to every participant by name. He spoke about the specifics, citing examples and even including some quotes based on proceedings. He turned the accused’s actions into a teachable moment, commenting on credibility, trust and importance of the relationship between the accused and the defence. The Crown team was praised for their preparation, understanding of the legal issues advocacy and theory of the case. Justice Barnes remarked that if they chose, they would be welcome addition to the legal profession in future years. Then it was time for the defence – I cringed wondering how he would address this team. What I saw next amazed me. Like he did with the Crown, Justice Barnes asked each young person to stand up as he gave them their feedback. The first young man (let’s call him Mark) stood, head hung low and slouching. Justice Barnes then acknowledge that he could tell by Mark’s performance that he had not spent a lot of time with the materials. Then Justice Barnes narrowed in on one point in the trial – he highlighted how Mark had effectively utilized cross examination techniques to deal with a witness who was not cooperating. Justice Barnes praised Mark’s natural and effective approach in this transaction. “Mark, if you chose to apply yourself you can be successful, I can see that you have the ability to be great.” I witnessed Mark grow at least 5 inches. By the time Justice Barnes was done, he was standing tall and proud with a smile on his face. Mark, a student likely to be written off in his regular classes had been told by a person of authority that he had potential to excel in something very academic and it was clear in his demeanour that the message had positively impacted him greatly. One after one I saw Justice Barnes acknowledge the areas required for improvement but then speak positively about something specific in each candidate’s performance. At the end of the session when each person took their picture with Justice Barnes, everyone stood with pride – with a big smile on their face.
While one may argue that evaluation has no place in experiential programming, this was clearly a situation where feedback furthered our program goals. It seems that the answer to the question of whether feedback or evaluation is appropriate in experiential justice education is as subjective as the content we tackle in the programming itself.