With the demise of UKCLE, I have got drawn into a bit more teaching this term than in recent years – even with the buyout for LETR. And I have to say I’m really enjoying it, I’ve got a nice mix of undergraduate legal theory, postgrad teaching on a module we call Foundations of Socio-Legal Theory and Research, and a joint Law and Business module – Critical Issues in Law and Management (CILM) – that my colleague Grier Palmer (Warwick Business School) has developed. CILM is one of those great modules where content in a way comes second to process. It is primarily a vehicle for developing creativity and critical thinking, and so we use a lot of student-centred activity and presentation work, a bit of open-space learning, and assess through an essay, book review, and a set of reflective logs. Its quite experimental for both the students and those of us teachng on it!
One of our experiments this year, which is linked to a larger project on case-based learning that Grier and I are involved in for Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (with colleagues from education, health, and the Medical School), has been to create a case study around the notorious Bhopal gas tragedy. Twenty-seven years after the original explosion at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, this is still having a massive impact on the lives of its victims As a case study it is a massively rich and powerful teaching resource. There are lots of primary and secondary materials available, and it provides a good vehcle for exploring a range of related legal, business and human rights issues.
We decided to run the Bhopal case as a student-led activity – we have a group of 10 CILM students who take the course as a 30 credit module, rather than the usual 24. So, their ’6 CATS project’ this year was to lead the rest of the class in preparing to stage and then staging a Peoples’ Tribunal hearing on the continuing impact of the Bhopal tragedy. This work was spread over four weeks and integrated into the class time, starting with a briefing session for the 30 CATS students in week 1, followed by a ‘book review’ session for the whole class – discussing and critically analysing a range of academic literature on the Bhopal tragedy. That in turn was followed in week 3 by a student-led session in which the 30 CATS team briefed and worked with their 24 credit peers on planning the tribunal. The tribunal itself was then held in week 4, over a two hour teaching slot.
We haven’t yet seen the 30 CATS students reflective pieces on this activity, but my initial sense is that it was reasonably successful, and something I would like to further develop. One of the great things about it was that, with a cohort of around 50 students on the module, we had two iterations of both the planning session and the Tribunal itself. This really gave the 30 CATS students an opportunity to reflect on what worked well and what didn’t, and to take action almost immediately to implement change. This worked really well in the planning session, so that the second was noticeably more structured, better managed and more dynamic – a great example of how students can really very quickly learn from experience. Interestingly, though the 30 CATS students are assessed on the whole process, not just the Tribunal, a lot of the assessment anxiety clearly homed in around the tribunal performance itself. One manifestation of this was that, though there was some really great content, the event was closely scripted and lacked a bit of the dynamism and creativity we were hoping to see. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the students; they could see it for themselves, and it one point in the second iteration, they ‘let go’ of the script and engaged in a bit of improvisation, and in that moment brought a wholly different energy to the activity .
For me it raises some interesting challenges. The assessment context clearly had a chilling effect and encouraged the students who were being assessed to play it a bit safe, even though that involved an element of discrepant reasoning, since they also knew that creativity was something they would get credit for. As a teacher, I want to maximise the opportunities for my students to think and act ‘outside of the box’, and to get credit for it; I don’t want to marginalise creativity by treating it as unassessable. I I therefore want to create a space for enabling and encouraging risk-taking, and now I’m wondering whether that needs to be constructed as somewhere safe, or maybe it does need to be slightly edgy? I also want to get inside and disrupt that kind of intuitive cost-benefit thinking which drives them to play safe, and, I suspect, is ingrained by years of traditional assessment practices. I can already see that we may have left a gap between creativity and risk-taking, both conceptually and in terms of getting the message across about what we were looking for from this asssessment. So, a bit of work to be done!