Teaching about Grassroots Innovations

P1040150Grassroots innovations are, by definition, trying to create new, more sustainable systems in society. These could be food systems, energy systems, transport systems, housing systems, money systems, etc. They embody a model of social change that sees society as being structured by social, economic, political and technological systems. This is fundamentally different to individualistic models of social change that claim we can achieve sustainability by aggregating lots of individuals’ pro-environmental behaviours.

Understanding the ideologies and politics behind sustainability practice is a key element of our teaching around grassroots innovations, and it’s one that we’ve struggled with over the years. Getting to grips with competing perspectives on society and the environment is particularly challenging for students, especially if they are more used to dealing with ‘facts’ than ‘theories’.

In response, some of us grassroots innovations researchers at UEA have been working together to develop new team-teaching methods for enhancing student engagement  in learning. We have developed ‘Theoretical Theatre’, a semi-improvised performance/teaching method with wide applicability across the curriculum, and our ideas are catching on across the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA (ENV) and further afield.

Is there room for comedy in the classroom? What is the pedagogical role of performance? Should teachers tread the boards? Can improvisation inspire? and should silliness support learning about sustainability? We think so, and we’d like to tell you why.

Students studying Gill Seyfang’s Sustainable Consumption module in ENV were recently treated to the world premier of Theoretical Theatre: Why Academics Disagree:

“Why do we consume the way we do? What drives our behaviour and how might we persuade people to consume more sustainably? These are questions 
social scientists and policymakers struggle with every day and there are no easy answers. This groundbreaking performance brings debates about sustainable consumption vividly to life in front of your eyes. We invite you to see the world from four different viewpoints. We have comedy glasses and we’re gonna use ‘em.”

A key objective was to convey the module’s key theoretical concepts (about models of social change) in an entertaining and accessible manner, and so improve student engagement in learning through innovative teaching methods. Our short video below gives you a flavour of the highlights:

In previous years of running the module, we had struggled to convey (and many students had therefore failed to grasp) the fact that different social theories present fundamentally different understandings of what the social world is and how it operates. They therefore pay attention to very different aspects of social life and ask radically different questions about it.

Often, in previous years, students had come away with the impression that simply combining different theories would provide the most ‘complete’ and therefore the ‘best’ understanding of social life. We needed them to understand that theories can’t always be uncritically added together, but instead that they sometimes (even often) disagree with each other in quite fundamental ways.

We needed the students to be able to grasp not only how each of the different theories understands the social world in its own right, but also how they understand and relate to each other. The important point in the performance was for the different perspectives to literally disagree with each other and draw attention to each other’s limitations.

A team of lecturers, researchers and PhD students joined forces to create the 50 minute semi-improvised piece, which involved impersonating competing theories, in a chatshow format with a Mastermind-style quiz, and a Question Time-style debate between the characters.

ENV supported the endeavour by funding a day of performance skills training, which transformed our lecture-like ideas into something really entertaining and lively, and gave us some really practical, technical skills to develop ‘stage presence’ in any public speaking situation.

The student response has been overwhelmingly positive, with one commenting “I tried reading beforehand but didn’t grasp the ideas very well … the demonstration made it more clear and got me into thinking about the coursework” and another said “It is quite something for a department to put on something for their students like this. I was really impressed. Thanks for going that extra mile!”

But this was more than a bit of fun – the learning outcomes have been significant. The class discussions and questions throughout the rest of the teaching semester demonstrated that students were really grasping the fundamental concepts of the module in a way they had not done before. At the end of the semester, we reprised the format, with groups of students playing the roles of each theory, and debating a topical issue for themselves. This helped them to really inhabit the characters and ideas, and the learning was evident in their coursework, the overall quality of which was considerably higher than any previous cohort: the average grade jumped from 60% to 67%.

So, what next?

Although putting together a piece like this is hard work and time-consuming, the benefit is that once it’s been developed it can be repeated with little additional effort. We plan to deliver the class to 6th form summer school students, and also present it in a session on innovative teaching methods in geography, at the Royal Geographical Society annual international conference in August.

More importantly, though, the idea is highly transferrable and adaptable to any teaching situation where learning might be enhanced by seeing something acted out rather than described. Irene Lorenzoni has used a similar method to convey the three dimensions of power to her class of Environmental Politics students; Tom Hargreaves is considering how to apply some of these ideas in his new Energy and People module, and we seem to have kick-started a discussion in the School about teaching.

A seven minute edited version of our premier performance can be found at https://vimeo.com/60264173and has already been viewed over 200 times by academics in the environmental social sciences across the world, and taken up for teaching in a range of disciplinary contexts.

We hope to contribute to sharing experiences in developing creative and innovative teaching methods, reflecting on their benefits and limitations, and the potential for theatre and comedy to play a larger role on the frontiers of teaching in ENV.