Benchmarking to debate

A bench, recently

One consequence of my (not so) new job is that I don’t do face-to-face teaching as a regular part of my work. However, I do still get out, to give guest talks for colleagues or to do public-facing sessions for local groups.

With one of the latter heaving into view, I’m thinking again about how best to tackle it.

Absent a curriculum, assessment or very much beyond the title and blurb I wrote some months ago, I like that there’s so much flexibility in what I might cover and how. Typically the group is of a reasonable size (15-20), interested enough to want to attend, and comfortable with talking.

As a result, I’m planning to lean heavily into that, by asking them each to write responses to some questions I’ll ask at the top, to guide what we do and how.

In this case, the nominal topic is ‘Britain and Europe/EU’, so there’s a huge amount that could be covered, so it also makes sense to head to where they want to go. To pick up on the lecture notes discussion, I’ve done enough on this to feel comfortable working from memory, with maybe some slides to unpack some technical aspects that will probably come up.

The idea is that I start by asking three questions:

  • Write one fact that you know about the UK-EU relationship;
  • Write a reason about why the UK-EU relationship is like it is;
  • Write what you think the relationship should be like.

Yes, we’ll be using post-it notes, so I can gather and organise responses on a whiteboard.

The intentions are multiple here. Firstly, it’s a simple and quick way to gather their input, anonymously. Secondly, it helps me gauge their level of knowledge and their general attitude towards the subject. And thirdly, it opens up debate.

The progression of the questions is a logical one of ‘how are things?’, ‘why are things so?’ and then ‘how would you like things to be?’, so moving from static facts through to understanding and engagement. By doing this together at the start, we can also avoid getting stuck in ruts formed by a more fixed approach: this is a subject area where it’s all too easy to end up focused on one approach/element, so having the prompts to step out of it all is very useful.

The questions should also structure the discussion with the participants: checking and sharing knowledge; working through possible explanations and then looking to the future.

The question that is of more interest to you is presumably one of whether this model works for your teaching. On that I have some doubts.

Yes, you could use the same structure of questions to handle a more focused topic, but it probably still leaves you with a class that lacks sufficient direction, especially if it’s fitting within a bigger structure of a module/programme. Moreover, because it’s very accommodating of prior knowledge, there’s no real incentive for students to read or prep beforehand, which feels like a missed opportunity. And finally, if your class is closer to 30 than 20, then it’s going to be harder to cover all the terrain they throw up.

However, it does suggest a way to reconfigure class discussion, and perhaps it triggers something for you that works for your needs. In which case, tell us all about it.