500 Words, Teaching Stories

Experiments under pressure

Dr Jonathan Floyd’s recent presentation to Education Committee impressed the University’s education enthusiasts so much that a request was passed to me to get in touch and share what he had to say.

A recent awardee of the ‘Jennie Lee’ prize for Outstanding Teaching from the Political Studies Association, as well as a Bristol Teaching Award in 2017 and a Best of Bristol lecture in 2016 – Jonathan’s approach to teaching should be especially admired because his subject – political philosophy – is so often seen simply as, in his words, a ‘necessary but dull’ part of the curriculum.

So, what makes his teaching of this ‘dull’ topic so outstanding?

The core of Jonathan’s teaching philosophy addresses four challenges we all face in our teaching:

  • Innovation – ‘must do new things!’
  • Skills – ‘must outsmart the robots!’
  • Entertainment – ‘must hold attention!’
  • Safety – ‘must not upset!’

He then responds to these activities through a host of interactive activities, including:

  • Polling software
  • Guest speakers
  • Co-authored manifestos
  • Student-designed websites/videos/posters
  • Assessed speeches
  • Recorded mono/dialogues

The key here is that, in every activity, students produce their own positions on the issues at hand, refining, discussing, and defending them along the way. They are exposed to the ‘best’ ideas in the field, across a range of viewpoints, but always given the freedom and support find their own place amongst them, regardless of their initial starting point. They work as authors, orators, collaborators, and, ultimately, political philosophers. Far from being taught ‘what’ to think about a range of contentious issues, they are simply shown ‘how’ to think, by being equipped with a range of tools of argument, all of which they get to hone and experiment with across an ever-changing set of classroom activities.

A demonstration of the effectiveness of this approach is reflected in feedback from a student who commented that one of his assessments (a speech given in a mocked-up House of Commons) was the best day of his degree. This simple practice of changing the ‘environment’ work is undertaken in can have a huge impact on learning. Another great example of this is James Norman’s The Office project.

Naturally, we might think that the kind of questioning and arguing that goes on here makes particular sense when it comes to philosophical material, yet it’s an approach that can be applied to any subject matter and discipline. Trying new things in your teaching pushes you as a practitioner and keeps things fresh and exciting. Upskilling your students as thinkers and citizens means they take away more knowledge, and with the firm grasp of experience, from your units. Keeping them enthused makes the content memorable and students receptive.  Managing exciting but controversial topics, by encouraging students to produce their own positions, without fear or favour, though with the time to reflect and refine, means a vital freedom for both teacher and taught, combining investigative but also inclusive learning at its best. With all of this we get innovative teaching, but also what Jonathan calls ‘teaching without preaching’, with a particular delight for him being the way that even those third-year students who have been on each of his units have no clue as to his own political opinions.

In order to get more of this type of teaching to take place in the University, Jonathan had several suggestions for the Committee. First, we need to recruit ‘experimenters’ in their field – teachers who are keen to try new things, even when some of them go wrong along the way. Second, we should ensure the freedom for these experiments to be rolled out, refined, replaced, and so on, without undue bureaucracy in advance. Third, we should fund and share whichever experiments that turn out to work, without dictating them from the top down, or on the assumption of ‘one size fits all’. On this note, Jonathan pointed out that he doesn’t really know yet how he’ll teach next year – he experiments and adapts all the time, depending on how things fare with the students each week, and of course the new ‘blended’ ways of working and learning we are all developing.  He does though know that, sooner rather than later, he wants to create an Institute for Public Political Philosophy here in Bristol, responsible for public lectures across the University and school teaching across the city, and having at its heart the same mission to upskill us all, as thinkers and citizens, that we see in his teaching. As for how that experiment works out – watch this space!

BILT currently has funding and/or mentoring available to colleagues looking to start an Education Development Project. Find more information and apply here.

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