Theoretical Theatre: An innovative teaching method for EU Studies: Guest post from Viviane Gravey

This guest post by Viviane Gravey (UEA) was first published on Ideas on Europe.

The European Union has an image problem. The “permissive consensus”[1] (aka non-informed consent) that supported European integration up to the early 1990s is long gone, and the image of “the European construction” as a guarantee of peace is no longer sufficient. Even the last European Commission thought a “new narrative for Europe” was required. Of course, not all of the EU’s legitimacy problems are about its image or European citizens’ lack of information. As important (if not more) is a political debate on whether national sovereignty should be shared, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of shifting power to a supranational level.

As researchers studying European policy and politics, we all make different choices about where we draw the line between raising awareness of what the EU is and what it does and taking a stand on European politics. The possibility of a referendum on British membership of the EU will make this discussion, on whether to get involved and how to do so, all the more crucial. In this post, I suggest that a first and necessary step in engaging the wider public with Europe is to think about how we teach the European Union – and how we can do it better. As a student of EU environmental policies, I have long been keen to draw insights from environmental policy studies for wider EU studies discussions.[2] In this post I go a step further, reflecting on how an innovative teaching practice,  “theoretical theatre”, developed in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia could be adapted to teaching EU studies.

A growing need for better EU studies teaching

What makes the EU complex to teach? Part of the answer comes from the EU political system itself. In many European countries like the UK or France, where citizens are accustomed to a confrontational type of politics, the large number of veto players at EU level and the permeating culture of consensus is decidedly alien. Media coverage of the EU does not always help. EU citizens are often presented with a decidedly skewed account of EU policy-makingand very rarely with informative explanations of what people in Brussels – MEPs, Commissioners, ministers – actually do. Another key difficulty for teaching the EU is the need for teachers to find a balance between the history of European integration, the creation of EU policies, and the opposing theories explaining both. Teachers must find this balance while also trying to engage students in current debates on and in Europe.

How to (better) teach the EU is a topic of growing interest among EU scholars – as evidenced by the 1st European Conference on Teaching and Learning Politics, International Relations and European Studies, by the UACES Student Forum seminar in November 2014 or by the section on Teaching and Learning in a recent Journal of Contemporary European Research issue.  These forums are increasingly discussing innovative teaching approaches, such as greater use of simulations or harnessing the Internet for teaching purposes (see for example the Active Learning in Political Science blog).

Teaching theories, a key hurdle?

Out of the many difficulties encountered when teaching the EU, I suggest one of the key problems is to understand the great variety of theories mobilised to study the EU. This is an especially acute challenge when teaching students with no political science background. Applying theories for the first time – taking a step back and managing to explain the same event or issue with different “lenses” – can be pretty daunting.

A few years ago, researchers in UEA’s 3S research group developed an engaging teaching approach that breaks the ice and introduces students to the use of social science theories: the theoretical theatre. In this approach, a group of lecturers each impersonate a different theory/theorist and engage in a lively debate offering different explanations of an event, or solutions to a problem.

The theoretical theatre approach was first developed to expose students to different theories on sustainable consumption. The theories covered in this sustainable consumption theatre were Rational Choice Theory, Social Psychology, Social Practice Theory and Systems of Provision Theory. Each theory was impersonated by an academic who debated the best way to move toward more sustainable consumption from the perspective of their chosen theoretical perspective[3].

For the last two years, I have helped (with my blog co-editors) bringing together another session in a module on environmental politics and policy. In our theoretical theatre, contenders debate the 1932 Kinder Scout Mass Trespass and the development of access to land rights in the UK from the perspective of Stephen Lukes’ three “faces of power”. Instead of impersonating a theory, we chose to impersonate a theorist, with “Stephen Lukes” going head to head with “Peter Bachrach” and “Robert Dahl” in a performance with an arguably smaller comedic element (although we did use 3D glasses).

Both modules got very positive feedback from the students – which may partly be because the students get to see their lecturers dress rather originally to “get into character”. The different directions in which we’ve taken these modules demonstrate the flexibility of the concept – and is a sign of its adaptability to other fields.

An EU theoretical theatre?

I argue EU studies could benefit from such a theatrical treatment. EU studies is a broad umbrella term for what is a very pluridisciplinary field of study that includes law, political science, history and economics – but the theoretical theatre approach should be flexible enough to be applied to a variety of fields.

What would an EU theoretical theatre look like? In order to be easily understood, it would need to be clearly focused on a specific period in time and issue, with at least 2 (ideally 3 or 4) divergent theoretical readings.

The theatre could serve many different purposes: it could be an introduction to competing readings of an historical period (e.g. the empty chair crisis of 1965 or the 2004 enlargement), to debates on the reasons and modality of a given process (growth in power of the European Parliament) or to a key contemporary issue such as the euro crisis.

For example, a theoretical theatre could be organised around the issue of the EU’s democratic deficit and the role the European Parliament could play in addressing that deficit. Such a discussion might include the four following broadly sketched “theoretical readings”:


Pluridisciplinarity in teaching?

In a complex academic job market, teaching skills are becoming very important for early career researchers. The pluridisciplinarity and diversity of EU studies makes it a perfect field to experiment. The approach I presented here, the theoretical theatre, is only one of many examples of innovative teaching methods being used right now across the UK (and beyond). These methods (theoretical theatre included) may also lead to more pluridisciplinarity in teaching, not just in research.


[1]Down, I. & Wilson, C., (2008) “From ‘Permissive Consensus’ to ‘Constraining Dissensus’: A Polarizing Union?”Acta Politica43, 26–49

[2] For example, I co-organised a panel on “Debating EU Governance: Insights from Environmental Policy Studies” at the 2014 UACES Student Forum conference

[3] The Theoretical Theatre performance is available here.

The Real Thing

Coke Real ThingAs I’ve said before, the best writing assignments present students with a contextualized problem — a task — that immediately gives them a role to fulfill, an audience to communicate with, and a format to follow. Role, audience, and format should reflect the types of tasks students might encounter outside of college; for example, a letter to the editor or a policy proposal that presents an evidence-based recommendation on a specific issue. The traditional research paper, with an audience of only the course instructor and a format that is not recognized outside of academia, lacks the authenticity that will lead to improvements in students’ writing.

Doctoral programs in political science typically don’t train people in how to write* or how to teach writing to others, and I’ve only recently begun to better incorporate the principles of role, audience, and format into my own teaching. Here is one example, referenced in my last post on project-based learning.

Last semester’s instructions for a project on tourism, for which a team of students wrote a report and delivered a class presentation:

Choose a location outside the USA and design an international volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the participants and the host community derive long term benefit. Make sure you define “benefit” and be aware that it’s possible to have more than one. Also make sure to include a process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the program’s goals are achieved.

These instructions are okay but not great. This semester’s instructions are better:

Your team of hospitality industry consultants has been hired by Hilton Worldwide to complete a study on the feasibility of an international (meaning outside the USA) volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the guests and the host community derive long term benefits. You team needs to report on the following:

♦  The best international location and type of experience for this venture, with an explanation of why the location and experience is the “best.”
♦  An explanation of the “benefits” that guests and the host community will acquire.
♦  A process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the venture’s goals are being achieved.

I have another example in which audience, purpose, and format might be even more obvious; I’ll write about that in my next post.

*one reason for the stilted jargon-laden prose of many political scientists

Global to Local with Podcasts

Homer CakeI recently stumbled across Ecological Economics: A Workbook for Problem-Based Learning, by Drs. Joshua Farley and Jon D. Erickson of the University of Vermont and Dr. Herman E. Daly of the University of Maryland (Island Press, 2005). The book begins with the premise that current social and environmental problems “require armies of independent-minded, collaborative, and passionate problem-solvers, not more Jeopardy champions” (p. xii). Unfortunately, educational systems are typically organized to deliver knowledge as isolated packets that, once encountered, can safely be forgotten. Students infrequently learn how to collaborate, much less apply different types of knowledge in an integrative fashion.

Problem solving often requires that one be aware of and be interested in how problems manifest themselves differently across different temporal or physical dimensions. I find this to be exceedingly difficult to teach to U.S. undergraduates, but I’ve found public TV and radio to be helpful. For example, when looking at environmental change in the context of economic development, I might assign stories about:

These podcasts, videos, and interactive online features are timely and serve as localized examples of global processes that would otherwise remain vague and of no real concern for many students. Also the content is in a novel format, at least in terms of what usually is assigned to students, which gets their attention.

Climate Challenge Politics–Quick Online Game

BBC Climate Challenge is an online interactive game that deals with the politics of solving a transnational problem. It took me about 25 minutes to complete the game and admittedly I charged right in for a few rounds before I really gathered what I was doing.

Click Here to Access the BBC Online Game

the link to the game is somewhat hard to understand. Click on the graphic that says OPEN. The interface for the actual game is not large. You may want to investigate ways to enlarge the screen in order to accommodate those with vision limitations 

The premise is this… You are the leader of your country and you need to make choices about the policies you will enact over several years. Each policy has a cost or a benefit. The cost or benefit categories are : money, food, power, and water. They operate on a sliding scale that goes up and down based on your choices.


You select policy cards in each round and once every three rounds you go to an international negotiation to try and establish global CO2 level reduction pledges.

For the record, I barely managed to keep my office and I completely THRASHED the British economy… BUT I did hold up my international agreements.  Success? It isn’t clear…And that’s the nice part about this game. This is clearly a two-level game with competing objectives. You develop a very strong sense (if you play more than once) of the problem with public approval and managing an economy while trying to keep the world from descending into global climate hell.

The game teaches you almost nothing about the global effects of climate change and to be honest I’m thankful. I find many resources about politics and environmental issues have a tendency to highlight the problem of the environment over the problem of the political calculations in dealing with the environment.

Students who are reflective about the game will pick up on the sheer difficulty of making policy decisions and calculating the costs and benefits. Additionally, even if I wasn’t interested in getting reelected by my people, I found myself enacting competing policies year over year. I was an absolute hypocrite dealing out water privatization one round and then enacting massive public works projects the next.

I think for maximum effect students should be made to play this game at least twice recording their choices and outcomes after each round. The game isn’t flashy, or even exciting… but its points are clear and for this I give it a stamp of awesome.

Climate Change Games, Pt. 1: Climate Challenge

Having finished my series exploring Poverty Games out there on the internet, I want to turn to another topic that can be difficult to teach and where games may help.

Climate change can be a tough subject to teach, particularly when you only have a single class session on it.  A group of students may have widely different levels of knowledge on the subject, and many may share the skepticism of 40% of Americans who doubt that climate change is either happening at all or due to man-made activities.  That can be a substantial hurdle to jump if you want to have a discussion on policy options to tackle climate change–if they don’t believe that greenhouse gases play a role in global warming, then there is little point to discussing strategies to reduce the amount of GHGs going into the atmosphere.

As my primary research is on this subject, I think a lot about how to teach climate change.  And I’m always on the lookout for games that assist me with the problems of teaching climate change.

Today’s game does not really help with the dilemma I outlined above. It requires some buy-in from the students that climate change is a problem worth solving–indeed, that bias is built into the game, where the leaders of various regions of the world all miraculously agree that climate change is a problem and are generally willing to adopt costly measures to combat it.  I would love to be in a world with this political reality.  So playing this game will require either existing buy-in from your students, or some preparation on your part to show them the data on the correlation between carbon dioxide levels and temperature.  That data, combined with polls of climate scientists on the topics, plus a metaphor about insurance* generally get my students to the point of accepting the basic premise that this is an issue worthy of discussion.

The game is Climate Challenge, sponsored by the BBC.  Players take on the leadership of the ‘European Nations’ and over the course of ten terms lasting one hundred years must choose what policies to implement to try to mitigate climate change.  Most of the game focuses on the domestic angle, with players choosing from amongst policies at different levels and areas: national  (such as a fuel tax or planting forests)  industry (perhaps switching from coal to natural gas); trade (you can import or export energy, water, food, and green technologies); local (promote windfarms or energy efficiency standards); and household (such as promoting recylcling).  In a given turn there are dozens of policy options, some of which are only available based on previous adoptions, but you can only choose six. Each policy affects your country’s resources, including money, energy, food, water, and pollution.  Investing in water infrastructure at the local level, for example, costs a lot of money but increases the amount of water available.

There is also an approval rating factor to consider.  Some policies–such as build more roads, or subsidize aviation–increase pollution but are quite popular with the people.  Public opinion is indicated through sample quotes accompanying each policy as well as a dial on the screen. Failure to maintain your approval rating can result in you being kicked out of office. I managed to get kicked out on turn three–and the game immediately ended.

There is an international dimension to the game that is supposed to mimic the Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, where you ‘negotiate’ with other leaders to agree to emission targets.  The only negotiating tactic is a straight up bribe, though, and generally as long as Europe does its share of GHG reduction the other countries will approve reductions with little effort on the part of the player.

At the end of the game you receive scores on three areas: Environment, Economy, and Popularity.  In my first run through the game I scored 85%, 0%, and 100%, respectively.  I had no idea that Economy was measured, so on the last turn I spent all my euros on popular measures like increasing pensions.

Overall, Climate Challenge is really fun.  Its very easy to learn with a clear interface and there is a tutorial to guide new players.  It is also very effective as a teaching tool, as it quickly and visually gives students an understanding of the different policy options that exist, the various levels of government that need to be involved, and the tradeoffs required to successfully combat climate change. A fuel tax, for example, is very effective at both increasing money and reducing pollution, but it is very unpopular.  In the game this is easily handled by going for a very popular policy to balance out the losses in the polls–and this provides a good point for discussion with the students about how true the game is to the political realities of addressing climate change.

Best use for this game is as an independent homework assignment before a class on climate change, with either questions for them to answer and turn in or a discussion in-class to act as a debriefing.

Fun: 2/4  Not sure how enthusiastic students will be about picking policies, although the min/maxers among us might get a kick out of it.

Ease of use: 4/4 very clear interface, and a tutorial is available.

Polisci Class Applicability: 4/4, as it really helps students understand the political challenges of climate change, and in a way that provides lots of room for discussion during the debrief.

*I point out that lots of people get fire insurance for their houses even though the chance of their house burning down is small, because we want to have some measure of protection in case an unlikely but catastrophic event happens.  We can generally agree that if climate change is real, it has the potential to cause a host of catastrophic problems (such as rising sea levels, more frequent and intense storms, droughts, and floods, increased disease vectors, excess heat, etc).  While its certainly possible that climate change is a hoax, that climate scientists are completely wrong–I ask them if they are willing to bet everything that this is true, and not take out perhaps some insurance just in case.  While this does not convince them all, it generally gets them to the point of willing to have a conversation about the issue, which is ultimately what I care about the most.

World Without Oil: An Alternate Reality Game

A great resource for anyone teaching courses in environmental or energy politics, World Without Oil is an alternate reality game that took place in 2007, where participants imagined how their lives would change as a result of a steep increase in the price of oil, followed by a sharp decrease in supply over the course of 32 weeks.

The designers created ten lesson plans that use the material created during the game, all of them available at the game’s website.  There are some great tools here–videos, blogs, comics, news articles–to create the alternate reality of the game world, along with group activities, individual projects, discussion questions, and action items.  You can use as much or as little of the lesson plans as you like.

In lesson one, for example, students are introduced to the simulation by being told that gas has jumped to $4.12/gallon and that there are rumors of a shortage coming.  A video and comic entry accompany this news.  After reviewing some important concepts, students discuss how they will respond in groups and are then given some blog entries written by others to which they can compare their responses. In the ensuing group discussion, you can review and then quiz the students on the extent of petroleum use in the world economy.  Finally, students are asked to reflect by blogging their own intended reaction to the news about gas prices.

I’m using the game in my upper level seminar on Environmental and Energy Security as an extra credit project.  On Thursdays we learn how the oil shortage has progressed this week, do some of the related activities, and students earn extra points by writing blog entries documenting their own experiences on the course website.  I used it once before without the extra credit component and the students gave the exercises high marks. I’ve found that its a good way to get students talking about a global issue from a very local and individual perspective and that it therefore helps them see such connections in other topics in the course.

Location is Everything

Sometimes something as simple as changing our environment can make a big difference in our teaching.  I’ve experienced this twice over this summer in two completely different ways.  First I’ve traded out (too) sunny, (too) hot St. Louis for cool and rainy London, via an exchange program at my university that allows me to teach at our campus here.  The two classes (sorry, ‘modules’) I’m offering are both repeats for me, but they have been sincere creative challenges.  Adapting to a new location required a lot of reflection on my courses and how well they would meet the needs of a different set of students.  Turns out, they required quite a bit of revision: classes here meet for four hours, not two; six weeks rather than sixteen; and Americans are the minority nationality.  Usually I find myself using American politics examples to keep my St. Louis students in familiar territory, and often have to criticize the US to generate their critical thinking skills; here, I had to avoid the too-easy American example, and found myself in the odd position of defending the US to challenge the constant critical stream from my students.  Combine this with learning new technology systems, administrative tasks, and a new campus and city, and its been as much a learning experience for me as my students.  Changing it up a bit in terms of my personal location has done wonders for reinvigorating my teaching.

For the classroom, too, it can make a difference.  Forcing the students to get up and actually move their desks may be a chore, but the physical environment does affect the way students interact in the classroom.  In  groupwork, make the students get up and move their desks so they face each other and are physically separated from other groups.  If playing a game, make them move all the chairs to the side so they can’t stay seated and thus avoid interaction.  And in discussion, sit in a circle (yes, us too) so that they are forced to talk to each other, rather than individually interacting with the professor.  Better yet, if the class is small enough, change the environment entirely and move out of the classroom.  An informal setting at a cafe, park, or study room can shock students out of the classroom norms and get them to really engage with each other.

I was lucky enough to have a small graduate class this summer, just five students after the first class.  This is a discussion-based seminar, so the next class, a sunny day, we sat outside on the campus lawn.  I drew on the back of a sheet of paper when the blackboard would have been used (later I borrowed a student’s Ipad.  I need one of those!).  From then on, we met at the cafe on campus.  The informal setting helped the students relax and they ended up talking to each other, rather than to me–and this never prevented me from taking control of the conversation as needed.  It also made asking ‘hey, what do YOU think?’ seems less of an instructor’s demand for participation than a normal, conversational request for the quiet person’s thoughts.