In an illustration of how London and other cities can be used to extend students’ learning and social experiences, LSE100 Fellow and guest teacher Joseph Downing, who’ll be taking up a Marie Curie fellowship at the CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université in October, reports on field trips he has run in Paris and London
It is well established that pedagogically the best way to learn is by ‘doing’. During my earlier education and career in the natural sciences this was relatively simple – lab work made up a substantial part of our time. However, reflecting on how to bring this approach to the social sciences often raises issues of time and resources. This is especially acute when confronted with integrating a learning by doing component into a regular, exam and essay based degree unit. LSE has some wonderful examples of practical learning for students in tailor made programmes: LSE GROUPS and the Researching London course (SO221) both demonstrate the power that can be unleashed by giving students ownership of projects and really immersing them in the ‘doing’ of the subject and discipline.
In all honesty, the integration of some of these ideas into my Implementing Social Policy course (SA222) last year actually arose serendipitously. I was approached by a very engaged group of students who had taken my expertise in the urban arena of French politics and policy quite literally, and asked me to lead a ‘field trip’ to the suburbs of Paris to see the situation in a troubled estate and also talk to some of my contacts about how the French government was approaching these issues from a policy perspective. With a grant from LSE’s Annual Fund, the backing of the Social Policy Society and the generous nature of my contacts in France, who gave up a valuable Parisian Saturday in return for a train ride and a crêpe, it happened! On our bus ride from the train station to the Clichy-sous-Bois estate – the flash point of the 2005 riots which remain the largest civil unrest in peacetime Europe – I was filled with a mix of nervous apprenhension and excitement. But we spent a very interesting afternoon discussing the social issues of the estate and also the stumbling blocks that the state is struggling to overcome in redeveloping what is a very isolated place infrastructurally and complicated by being mainly in private ownership, unlike many other troublesome public housing estates. Students fed back really positively on how the experience of a new context had brought the subject to life for them in a way that they really appreciated, and their keenness and ability to connect the issues presented to us on the day with the literature and wider ideas in their courses was genuinely, and very pleasantly, surprising.
On my return, I was keen, given the promising work already underway at LSE and a number of universities to use London as a living, breathing, pedagogical resource, to integrate our ‘home city’ into my teaching landscape. Here, I wanted to turn the idea of using a learning by doing field trip into more than a special event and develop something that could sit alongside, and nourish, a conventional compulsory undergraduate unit. Colleagues of mine on LSE100 inspired me to move forward with the idea, and so this year I trialled it as part of SA222 with two classes of undergraduate students. This time, I organised a 1.5 mile ‘walking tour’ of six key sites in London’s Notting Hill that are vital in the evolution of social policy in the UK. Notting Hill, now known as one of London’s top residential and tourist spots, also spent a considerable part of the 20th century with a reputation as a prime example of urban decay and deprivation, and became one of the first areas for significant state intervention into the lives of the poor. Over the two hours we spent there we took in sites such as the infamous Rachman property empire – redeveloped originally as post-war council housing but mainly sold off in the 1980s under the right to buy scheme and then let back to Westminster Council at extortionate rates by buy to let investors – Trellick Tower (left) and the scene of the Notting Hill race riots, so important in the development of the UK’s anti-discimination policies. As we walked I encouraged students to connect what they saw to key aspects of the course and its readings, which they did very well, commenting that the trip had helped them to see social policy as something living and breathing and enabled them to reflect on how the micro and macro workings of complex policy processes affect real life situations.
The time and resource commitment required to plan and carry out these trips was minimal, and for me fully worthwhile in terms of benefits to the students. As such, I’ve discovered that learning by doing is much easier to integrate into our social science teaching than I thought, especially when we have such a valuable resource as London as a canvas.
For those who would like to read more about the benefits of and logistics planning for field trips, these two articles may be of interest: Field Trips as Short-Term Experiential Education, by Rik Scarce (1997, Teaching Sociology, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 219-226) and Organising Business Field Trips for Students in Higher Education, by Veronica Earle, Amanda Relph and Maria Thomas (2015, Excellent in Teaching and Learning Notes).