Rip it up and start again

For a variety of reasons, I’m thinking about what we do as teachers in a fairly fundamental way. Today’s trigger has been a piece about how a group of Spanish academics set up a political party, Podemos, this January, which is now in serious contention for government. To quote Marx, “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt drauf an, sie zu verändern.”

If you could start with a totally clean sheet, what would you do with with your students? What if that clean sheet was not just a module/course, but a whole degree, or even a whole university?

Such situations might happen very rarely, and even more rarely for benign reasons, but as a thought exercise it is a useful way of focusing on what you feel to be important and how you might get there. I was fortunate enough many years ago to be part of a blank-sheet creation of a new department of politics, which let me try out a whole range of ideas that probably would never have happened otherwise: certainly the experience is one that continues to shape (positively) my sense of what one can do.

But let’s leave that aspect to one side for a moment, and focus instead on the first question: what does your ideal learning environment look like?

For me, there are three key aspects I would want to pursue.

The first is a deep embedding of experiential learning. While I would love to import wholesale the Finnish Team Academy model, I can see some issues in applying it to a politics setting. Team Academy essentially sets students out to create and run real-world businesses, with everything else a function of that. For a politics focus, the issue is…errrm… political. Consider again the Podemos example at the top of the page and you’ll see how pressing students into political activism raises problems of internal collective action.

The second idea is that of integrating subjects as much as possible. Modules/courses tend to encourage students to view elements of their study as discrete and siloed, for all our efforts to promote reflection across the bigger picture. This is particularly a problem for the ‘boring/difficult’ stuff, like research methods or political theory (apologies if you like/work on this, it’s not personal). Talking with colleagues, it is often when these elements get used in an applied way that students see their value and build their interest.

Finally, I think we would have to place more stress on team-work and collaborative learning. This is both a reflection of the realities of the world of work, where we are very rarely left to our own devices, but also of the more basic need to encourage students to become independent learners, drawing in from all sides, not just the traditional top-down teacher-student model.

You’ve got to have a dream

So what does that look like, in practice? I ask because I spend much of my day job asking just such questions of colleagues, who have to fit into the regulations and practices of the university.  Clearly, here I’m feeling less bound by that, although it obviously becomes an issue at some point.

The starting point would be a set of streams, rather than modules/courses, which would run through the programme as a whole. Each of these streams would form a home base for students to explore a particular aspect of their studies, as well as building a stronger corporate sense of identity with fellow students.

The streams would each tackle a basic element: exploration, research and engagement. The exploration stream would be closest to a conventional programme, taking a broad area of political activity (the state, the international system, civil society, etc.) and providing an integrated environment in which to study it. That might well take the form of an extended simulation, together with lecturers on hand to provide advice and to unpack key issues as they arose.

The research stream would be a space for students to get their hands dirty in the world of academia, by designing studies, collecting data and analysing it. Clearly, the role of staff would be vital here, since they would need to work with students in that process, sharing their research ideas and practice, as well as leading students towards ever more challenging topics. The Student-as-Researcher agenda is an ever-more prevalent one, not least because it makes the link between research and teaching more properly meaningful.

The engagement stream is a more modest version of the Team Academy idea: getting students out into the world, not simply to understand it (that’s the research stream) but to change it. Activities could cover anything from producing materials to influence public debate (e.g. local politics, national debates, consultation exercises) to participating in political activity (I’ll admit I’m always disappointed that my students still haven’t cornered the elections to the students’ union). It’s also potentially the place to embed professional placements.

The streams build on each other. Exploration gives a sense of the world, enabling research to asks questions of it, even as trying to shape it through engagement. Those can happen simultaneously, providing further reinforcement of the learning experience for students.

In all three streams, the content would be a matter of consultation between staff and students, within a broad framework of overall learning objectives. Because the work would be very dynamic, there would be some risk that less attention would be given to some aspects than others, but it wouldn’t be beyond the whit of those involved to manage that.

Back to life, back to reality

Of course, all of this runs into any number of practical problems, from regulations to rooming. Most obviously of all, such a system would require a very much more flexible relationship between students and staff. The former would have to know more of their mind and their objectives and be able to articulate that from the go. The latter would have to become much more responsive to students’ needs, in the sense of not having a pre-defined set of classes to teach, but rather to address the specific and emergent needs of each group, each time.

Likewise, the boundaries of politics would be severely challenged. In this set-up, you can see how we stray into sociology, economics, psychology, geography and a bunch of other disciplines. That might be a problem, but it’s also a useful reminder that the world isn’t disciplinary.

So there we go; some blue sky thinking. How much of this I can ever put into effect is a very moot point, but without thinking such things I can be confident that I will not continue to develop my practice: who knows what opportunities lie ahead?

3 thoughts on “Rip it up and start again

  1. The streams idea is brilliant. I can see a department or school in which each course (or if I have my UK terminology correct, each module) is delivered as either exploration, research, or engagement. Students would be required to take at least one module in each stream for breadth but could choose a particular stream to focus on for their program of study.

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