Theory and Practice: Overcoming Anxieties In Learning

I have had conversations with a few FHEQ level 5 students this week about the POL 2031 Foreign Policy Analysis module – and the conversations are familiar from all the years of teaching on a variety of modules. It’s worth, therefore, thinking and working through what is being said.

The common theme seems to be that there is a bit of struggle to understand the material and how the parts fit together. The clue, of course, is in the name: this module is all about how to analyse foreign policy. As such it plays to all the problems that students traditionally experience: understanding theory, understanding how theory relates to practice; understanding how to apply theory to practice; understanding how to build an analytical framework. But beyond that, those conversations have revealed something else, the pressure students feel to understand everything  immediately. This is one of the things I dislike about semester rather than year-long modules. 11 weeks in the classroom sends out the message that it’s possible to develop a deep understanding of a particular area of study in just that period of time. It’s vital, therefore, to remind students of the fact that they undertake a programme, not a module, of study and that they have learned much elsewhere that relates to another module as well.

Beyond that, students have to be reassured that it’s normal to feel like full understanding is somewhere just out of reach; that’s often part of the learning process. A certain amount therefore has to be taken on trust for a little while. The biggest challenge is to remain motivated enough to continue reading and thinking. I still remember my time as a UG and spending most of the year in which I first learned about the EU and feeling as if I was in a fog. I could see the individual parts but not the whole and didn’t really feel as if I knew what we were working towards. Then, as so often happens  in learning, I had my eureka moment when it all clicked, although admittedly, I had the luxury of a year to work through this.

Luckily for POL2031 students, you don’t have to wait too long for something to happen out there in the world that serves as a good learning tool. One such moment was the announcement on Wednesday of William Hague that the UK would do more to intervene in Syria. Students have a foreign policy briefing to write – no easy task, I acknowledge – and Hague’s announcement is a good case. An easy way in is a series of questions that begins with: how can we understand and account for this decision? What were the motivations? What are the objectives? Whose interests are being defended? What values underpin the decision? How will this be implemented (look at the details)? How consistent is this decision with previous UK FP decisions? What alternatives were (are likely to have) been considered? Why this decision now? There are many more but you can begin with those. And in asking so many questions, you start yourself on the road of answering them because you now know what you’re looking for in terms of evidence.

For briefing purposes, all of this is vital. Students have to ‘imagine’ themselves into a place where they were one of those briefing Hague on the need (or not) to intervene more in Syria and the likely consequences of any action (or inaction). Summary is important and one of the things students often struggle with. Media reports can be useful here – for content and insight into how to tell a story concisely, though stylistically they are not necessarily the thing to emulate. Looking at the newspapers on Thursday morning though, most of them began with the tale to date and painted a picture of rising and increasingly unacceptable casualties.  This tells us something about part of the context in which the decision was made and in which it will be implemented. It also establishes significance, something POL2031 students will also have to do.

None of this is unconnected to what we have looked at in more abstract terms. All of the questions above relate to what we have been talking about in the 5 weeks of classes to date. Let’s take one of the more difficult aspects: consistency with previous decisions. This question reflects issues of identity, of change or continuity and links to the other questions about interests and values. It also relates to questions of context – if Hague’s decision is inconsistent, for instance, you need to account for that. How? Begin with context: has something changed in either the internal or external context (or both) that can explain that? I’ll give a clue, it’s an unsurprising decision and there is a good deal of consistency with past decisions and actions.

Finally, students have to remember that while they are being asked to apply theoretical ideas to a real life situation, they are doing so from a learning point of view – future inter-state relations do not rest on the recommendations of their briefing! This is the true luxury of higher education: an opportunity to ‘play’ with ideas, to engage intellectually without the pressures that real-life practitioners face.  And in an educational context, how you get there is far more important than where you get. I am looking forward to seeing what our students come up with in their briefing.