Enough with the problems. Give me solutions!

Florentine in practical application of political thought shock!
Florentine in practical application of political thought shock!

This past week, I got to fly down to Florence, to take part in a workshop on studying the European Union, hosted by the European University Institute and the College of Europe (my alma mater). With a beautiful setting and Italian food and drink aplenty, it was certainly a very convivial environment.

At the same time, we ended up covered a lot of the same ground that all of us have covered many times before. We talked about how multi-/inter-disciplinarity is good, but difficult to actually achieve; we talked about how some basic concepts remain poorly conceptualised (‘euroscepticism’ this time); we even talked about the difficulties of sharing good practice in learning & teaching.

In short, we were good academics: long on the problems, much shorter on the solutions (or even, a solution).

Now this isn’t about other people, but about all of us. Including me. Even this blog, which has always had the aspect of being an action learning set, working through problems as we identify them, has also been known to pull up short on finding ways out.

My sympathy with our plight is doubled by my work on euroscepticism (since I’ve mentioned it), which is a negatively-defined concept, marked out by a shared dislike of some aspect of European integration, rather than a positive programme of change. At least academics have a bit more consensus about what the problems might be.

The frustration is simply that for all our arguing that ‘X is bad’ or ‘Y is problematic’, we still seem to be too infrequent in moving to the next stage of saying ‘here’s a way we can deal with this.’ In learning & teaching, this is all the more odd, given that there’s a whole bunch of pedagogic research that we could be drawing on to inform our practice, rather than just dipping our toes into it all.

At this point, I now realise I’ve painted myself in something of corner, since I am now required to offer a solution to our problem.

A key part of all this is how we discuss. In the case of this event, we actually did better than normal, because we had the moderators collect ideas as we went, and they are now in the process of pulling strands together to form a couple of papers. Thus the usual brutal and rude awakening from conference dreamtime is lessened, if not totally overcome. But perhaps we can go further with this.

Active learning tells us that engagement, learning and outcomes are all improved if we place the student at the centre of the learning environment and give them an active stake in the process. Logically then, we would be more likely to find solutions if we made our discussions and debates more active.

Consider the usual format of academic debate. A bunch of people sit at the front of a room, speak in turn, then answer questions/listen to possibly related points. If you’re lucky, you sit with a bunch of people around a table, listen each in turn and do the same (hopefully with fewer unrelated ‘contributions’). Much of the time, you’re in a passive mode, trying to parse some meaning from the other people and working out whether you have anything to offer or when you can say the thing you were going to say anyway, whatever was discussed.

Not that I’m jaded, you understand.

If instead we made these discussions ones centred around the production of some common output, then we might focus people’s attention better and so produce something that spoke more clearly to our communally-identified problems.

What form that might take is open to debate. Perhaps a joint statement, or a paper, or a piece of audio-visual media, or a website: the choice is pretty big. If there’s one thing academics should generally be good at, then it’s integrating ideas, knowledge and interpretation, so let’s play to those strengths.

This means flipping our discussions, pushing the passive stuff to somewhere prior to the discussion and using the valuable time we have together to produce something new.

It also means being willing to shake ourselves out of the habit of simply pointing out problems: the world has more than enough of those already.