Osgoode class partners with law students in Scotland

Cropped globe on a table

Law students in Osgoode Associate Professor Heidi Matthews’ international criminal law course are engaged in an innovative, trans-Atlantic simulation with their counterparts at the University of Glasgow. The simulation will help students understand the key issues around international humanitarian law.

By Elaine Smith

Heidi Matthews
Heidi Matthews

Experiential education in the form of a globally networked learning experience will make an appearance in Heidi Matthews’ International Criminal Law class at Osgoode Hall Law School this term as she pairs her students with law school peers at the University of Glasgow School of Law for a simulation.

Matthews, an associate professor specializing in international law and political violence, is joining forces with Glasgow colleague Rebecca Sutton, a senior lecturer in international law she met while doing a post-doctoral fellowship in Britain. Matthews and Sutton are working together to provide their students with an enriched classroom experience that will give them a chance “to work collaboratively in a sustained way,” says Matthews, while gaining an understanding of international law and humanitarian law in action and how they intersect. It’s a wonderful example of globally networked learning, which refers to an approach to teaching and learning that enables students and faculty based in different locations worldwide to participate in and collaborate on knowledge-making processes.

The pair has chosen a case formulated by the Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (PILAC) at Harvard University for their purposes. Its focus is civilian protection in partnered armed conflicts.

“PILAC works to enhance pedagogy in the field of law and war, and they have a series of case studies designed as simulations for faculty to use,” says Matthews. “This particular simulation will help students understand the key issues around international protection of civilians with a focus on both state and individual responsibility for international crimes. It shows how international humanitarian law can impact concrete operational decisions and the potential for criminal liability if the rules aren’t followed.”

Students on both sides of the Atlantic are preparing for the simulation by grounding themselves in the legal background they’ll need for the simulation. On the Canadian side, students are also working in groups on an innovative curriculum developed by Sutton called Emotion Bites. It trains them in the emotional skills that are relevant to advocacy and negotiation, both essential in navigating the legal aspects of a conflict.

“So often in traditional approaches to legal education we treat these as secondary skills, so it was important to me to disrupt the soft skills/hard law dichotomy,” says Matthews, who is building on Sutton’s pilot curriculum and adapting it for the International Criminal Law course. “This is the first time an Osgoode professor has tried integrating them within a substantive course.”

In March, Matthews and Sutton will combine groups from both schools to undertake the simulation, with each group taking on the role of a particular constituency, such as a state or a regional government. The exercise will focus on building co-operative skills and managing outcomes, says Matthews, with the applicable law as the background.

“The simulation combines an invitation to apply the law with a degree of chance,” Matthews says. “The students must manage uncertainty. They might make decisions with the best intelligence possible, but these decisions might have unintended consequences.”

Adds Sutton, “In my experience, teaching theories of compliance or restraint in war is no match for presenting students with a complex applied scenario that they need to navigate in real time. Engaging in role plays trains students to discern which body of law might be most relevant to a particular problem and how to apply it.”

Matthews believes it will be “an exciting learning experience” for everyone.

“It will be fast-paced, and students will have to make decisions in real time, balancing competing interests,” she says.

In addition, each student will be required to reflect on these activities through a journaling exercise.

“I’ve asked students to think critically about their experiences working together as a group, both for Emotion Bites and the simulation,” Matthews says. “Students are being encouraged to develop critical, reflexive sensibilities about engaging in group work, both the process and the substance.”

The simulation will also push them to think more critically about the law itself and where changes might be necessary.

“Role play exercises can also inform and deepen student critiques of the law’s limitations,” notes Sutton.

Finally, the simulation will give students firsthand experience of what working in international law might require from a cross-cultural perspective.

“Students studying law in Scotland and in Canada are being trained in different legal cultures, and their engagement with international law will inevitably be inflected with their understandings of how law is practiced in their home or domestic jurisdiction,” Sutton says. “If the students subsequently become diplomats, or work for international criminal law tribunals, for example, they can expect to encounter and collaborate with international lawyers from different jurisdictions. In such contexts, they will need to find ways to communicate across these potential differences.”