Donatella Bonansinga, University of Birmingham 26 October 2020

Teaching political science can be a hard endeavour because, unlike other sciences, students of politics arrive at university with pre-existing (and sometimes well-seated) beliefs about the content they will be taught. Teaching and learning can become difficult in this discipline especially if students evaluate topics based on existing allegiances rather than through their scrupulous examination. The ability to think critically may thus clash with individual political opinions.


Teaching conservative and liberal ideologies is a case in point of the ‘critical barriers’ to learning that politics instructors may encounter. Conservatism and liberalism are the two most widespread ideologies in any given society and students will likely arrive at university having already formed some political opinions. How can we prompt students to engage critically with the study of ideologies rather than relying on defending pre-existing cues?


To help my first-year students with this task, I designed an activity (inspired by this ‘ideology spotting exercise’) that aims at obviating the friction between internalising new knowledge and updating individual beliefs systems.


The activity is a role-playing game that asks students to work as the Communications Teams of two ideal-type political parties (the ‘Conservatives’ and the ‘Liberals’) and to produce ideologically driven statements to a set of social questions.

 The seminar has two main learning objectives:

  1. Developing an in-depth understanding of conservative and liberal thinking, based on the articulation of each ideology’s philosophical underpinnings;
  2. Application of each ideology to real-world issues.


Instructions for a 50-min session

After randomly assigning students to two groups (the Liberals and the Conservatives), I briefly introduce the activity by clarifying what we are about to do and why (learning outcomes). Then I circulate and read the instructions, which detail the game’s three phases:


Preparation (3 minutes)

Groups make sure they have at least one device (laptop or phone) to write the statement; they also identify Spokespersons and Press Secretaries for, respectively, reading and defending the statement they will produce.


Activity (10 minutes)

Topics are revealed on the class screen and students work collaboratively to draft a policy position, linking their main argument explicitly to the ideology’s key principles (these can be conveniently listed in handouts or a PowerPoint slide for help). Students use, an online educational tool that allows them to send their statements, once ready, to the class screen. The use of Mentimeter supports students with reading (as opposed to listening to) statements that are made up of complex ideas and helps them carefully reflect on what the competing team has produced, in preparation for the debate phase. It is also of added support for non-native speakers and visual learners, thus ensuring their participation and making the session as inclusive as possible to all learners. Plus, it adds the extra challenge of giving students only 250 characters at their disposal!


Debate (5 minutes)

Spokespersons start this phase by reading their policy statements, while the opposite group formulates a provocative question and press secretaries respond. The role of the ‘spokesperson’ is important to promote engagement and participation, as it is a ‘safe space’ for the more timid students, allowing them to take an active part in the exercise without the pressure of having to think on their feet to respond to criticism (as the press secretaries would do).


The timing of the three phases allows the class to tackle two topics. I recommend formulating them as questions, to facilitate drafting statements as a response in support or rejection. The key is then swapping the groups before moving to the second topic, so those working on the conservative perspective will now have to defend a liberal view. (If you want an added challenge, you can ask students to keep working on the same topic!)


This is the core of the activity: having to think ‘in the shoes’ of an ideology the student would not necessarily endorse. Crucially, having to incorporate philosophical principles to their statements invites students to examine the philosophical assumptions behind political thought and to reflect on how these shape each ideology’s political stances.


It is this process of ‘hunting assumptions’, as Brookfield called it, that nurtures their development as critical thinkers; as an analytical strategy, it exposes students to their own biases but also trains them to be sceptical, curious and always look for what lies underneath the surface.

Donatella Bonansinga is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham and an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.