More ripping up, more starting again

A bit too much removal of constraint

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what my ideal programme of Politics study might look like. In it, I sought to embed a student-led approach that took them more seamlessly into becoming political actors (in the broad sense).

I got some really useful feedback on the idea which I’ve been turning over ever since. And because I can see some potential here for further development of the idea, I’ll use my opportunity to work through those points now.

The big issue is clearly one of operationalisation. As I’ve argued before, usually my view that one should see practical constraints as an opportunity to try out something different: indeed, I often find that it’s mostly because of those constraints that I try something different. Most of us simply don’t have the time, incentive or inclination to go tearing it all up.

Now, in the spirit of the original idea – to think of what I want, rather than what I must – I should be doing the same for turning the three-stream model into practice.

Ideally, I’d be running those streams alongside each other, so they could reinforce and develop each other, and I’d be letting them run as long as was needed to give students the necessary opportunities to learn. If we were dispensing with academic years, then you might see this becoming a multi-year process, where students ‘develop’ into more and more advanced learning and practice, until they reach some pre-determined set of learning objectives. And part of that would be students’ ability to know that they had reached that level (rather than being told by someone else).

Now, writing that last paragraph has given me mild palpitations (and it’s my idea). To dispense with everything is fun, but it’s also rather disquieting. Not least because it lies quite a long way beyond what we might reasonably encounter. So let’s try something more conventional.

Let’s assume the following. You have academic years and you have to run some kind of summative assessment. Someone is going to ask for a formal structure of a degree programme and will check that you’ve following it. And you don’t get to do anything too radically different from the rest of your university.

In my case, I have to run four 15-credit modules in each of my two semesters, so already I’d have to struggle to fit a three-stream model into that. One option would be to have more ‘exploration’ early on, with more ‘research’ and ‘engagement’ as students developed, but with a constant presence of all three in each semester. Activities might be run that cross-cut modules: a a big activity might provide ample opportunity for all three streams to draw on, and give a natural coherence to the overall package of study.

We also have a lot of joint-honours students, who only take a limited number of our modules each semester, so if we wanted to keep that, we’d need to think about activities that could contain particular strands where those students could take part, without having to become completely involved. So an activity around an election campaign (for example) might include specialist activities of relevance to sociologists (studying ‘the bubble’) or economists (costing manifesto pledges) that would also feed into the work of the single-honours students.

Assessment in these modules would have to be broadly constructed, since the detail of the activities might be largely co-constructed with the students, but if this were embedded at the start of each module (much in the manner of problem-based learning (PBL)), then that needn’t be a major problem, since mutually-acceptable goals and assessment would be set. These might combine both practical activity and self-reflection.

Within activities, there is obviously lots of scope for different approaches, as I noted in the original post. Certainly – as one colleague noted – there’s much in common with a PBL style, but equally there would be no particular need to use one style throughout. Indeed, there would be a strong argument to say that mixing and matching pedagogies would help to ground work and to expose students to a broad range of methods. As we like to say, methods should follow the question, not the other way around.

An example

Let’s try now to put this into effect on the most modest of scales: a module/course. This might be useful, since I imagine that’s what most readers will have to work with. And since it’s that time of the electoral cycle, let’s work on that idea I mentioned earlier of a project on a general election.

Since this would only be one module/course, we’ll assume the students are a bit further along in their studies, so not first-years. And I’ll run it through my second semester, which goes from early February to late May: the British general election is 7 May.

The ‘exploration’ element would be largely implicit, since students would know about electoral systems and political institutions, but would be developed by the ‘research’ and ‘engagement’ streams.

The former would consist of different sub-groups working on aspects of the campaign that they think are of particular interest: identification of party strategies, manifesto coding, media/crisis management, role of non-party actors in shaping debate, etc. This requires a number of different research methodologies, and students could be engaged in one or more of these activities.

The ‘engagement’ side would have two elements. One would be to organise a public event prior to the election, such as a hustings or a town-hall style meeting, where they would facilitate debate. This would side-step being party-political, while still participating in political debate and further embedding their research within a wider social context: indeed, the event itself could be used to provide data for later coding and evaluation.

The second element would be post-election, where students could present their research findings, again to a wider audience: probably this would need to be online, with a website providing speedy analysis of the data collected. Logically, that work would be more locally focused, but the site could also be run throughout the semester as a resource for voters too.

By blending research and engagement, students gain a much more rounded sense of how their study fits into a larger picture, teaching staff get to tap into key political debates with a bunch of young researchers alongside them, and the public get something that might help them participate politically.

And that’s just one module.