Simon Usherwood

It’s a commonplace when writing conference reports to say that good discussion was had and that it was all very productive. However, not many would say that their event was downright fun.

But I will.

Set up four years ago by the members of the learning and teaching groups of the Political Studies Association (PSA), the Academic Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES), the British International Studies Association (BISA), the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR), the biennial European Conference on Teaching and Learning Politics, International Relations and European Studies (EuroTLC) has become the focus point for practitioners across these disciplines who want to actively experience and broaden their pedagogic practice.

At the heart of the event is the notion that conferences can be actively enriching, by putting delegates into conversations and activities that go far beyond the presentation of papers. Indeed, over its three editions, EuroTLC has moved ever further away from the conventional panel format, to embrace workshops, flipped formats and the general creation of spaces in which dialogue and exchange can take place.

With the input of our hosts at Prague’s Charles University, EuroTLC 2018 really demonstrated the value of that flexibility and creativity. Colleagues from across Europe brought both specific practices from their classrooms and ideas about how to develop the more general practice of pedagogy, for everyone to discuss.

In all this, it is worth stressing how much this rests on the particularly open nature of the learning and teaching community. There is a strong culture of sharing and modifying, with endless bouncing of ideas off each other to mutual benefit. In part that’s made easier by the essential understanding that because we’re all trying to do different things with our teaching, there is no necessity that use of others’ materials must be faithful to their original purpose.

As an illustration, I demonstrated my simplified simulation of the EU, with contains a two-level game. Colleagues really liked it, but much of the subsequent discussion was about how one could change it, to suit their own purposes. Those changes are not all ones that I’m interested in doing myself, because of the way I use the exercise, but the discussion was very helpful nonetheless in getting me to see the points of extension and adaptation that could be made.

And all of this matters not only for participants.

One of the recurrent themes of the discussions in and around the conference was that of bridging the gap between the very general and the very specific.

Educational science offers a rich seam of ideas and conceptualisations that could be of use to us in the classroom, but as the researchers from that field in attendance noted, often it doesn’t think about how to translate that into practice. An awareness of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning outcomes is theoretically interesting, but to turn it into something you can use in a class is a very different proposition.

At the same time, while ‘show and tell’ work within our disciplines has become less common, especially as journals have demanded more rigour, those who have pedagogic research as a secondary interest often hesitate to frame their activities as something that could be generalised.

It’s this gap that makes EuroTLC such a productive space.

By giving colleagues an opportunity to not simply present, but also to get others to experience what they do, the format offers much more potential for making connections and stimulating broader frameworks of understanding.

Behind all this is much more of a concerted movement to bring more systematic study of what works (and how) in the classroom, as well as more determined sharing of practice. Having long championed this through my work with American colleagues on the Active Learning in Political Science blog, it has been particularly rewarding to see this become a more general concern. Indeed, the winners of the best workshop prize this year had been encouraged to try out their activities by listening to someone who showed how to do it two years ago, so this is not simply an abstract ambition.

Moreover, the model of EuroTLC, with its backing from a range of professional bodies, should also be an encouragement to us to get away from siloed thinking and echo chambers. In Prague, circumstance made it possible to schedule a training programme for Turkish colleagues immediately prior to the conference, allowing an important part of our community to stay on and access materials they would otherwise have not encountered.

Such opportunities can be taken when they arise, but they can also be encouraged to happen in the first place. For that reason, the EuroTLC website contains lots of materials from delegates that can be accessed by anyone. Perhaps that will let those of who’ve not been able to attend to get a strong sense of what can be done, with resources that are intended for use, not just passive reading.

But back to the fun.

EuroTLC has really underlined the importance of community to all of us who take part in it. Given space to think and talk, exchange and muse on what might follow, all of us have come away with new ideas and more resolve. And if we can get others to see that conferences can become more active environments, then that’ll be no bad thing either.

 

Simon Usherwood is Reader in Politics at the University of Surrey and Deputy Director of the ESRC's UK in a Changing Europe programme. He tweets @Usherwood.