Changing the focus of the classroom
Sarah Richardson, Lydia Plath & Tim Lockley
Department of History, Warwick University
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Decentering the classroom can come in many guises. Changing who, when and what students learn about, as well as who decides on the curriculum and subsequent assessment, introduces new perspectives, and ensures that what is being taught is relevant to the lives of our students.
In the History Department at Warwick, internationalisation is not just about now, but is about the past, and encouraging students to understand that people in the past lived and thought differently. Using this perspective students are asked to question what they consider to be normal, universal experiences and how that may vary for different people around the world. Modules focus on a wide variety of topics related to internationalisation including human rights in Latin America; race, ethnicity and migration; a history of Africa; and African American culture.
Recently, a holistic review of the curriculum was undertaken, from first year, to final year. Students completed surveys and participated in focus groups to give their views and student reps worked alongside academics to produce an implementation plan. Reflections and evaluations are sought each year, to ensure continuous adjustment and this has led to the classroom becoming ‘an experimental space, like a lab, where students feel they’ve got ownership of their own classroom’. Students are encouraged to bring their own ideas to discuss during seminars and given the flexibility to choose their own case studies, and in some modules, students have completely devised their own curriculum. Overall, this enables students within the department to have control over what they’re learning and leads to a more engaged, student-centred learning style, decentring the classroom.
As part of the curriculum review, a wide variety of assessment options were introduced within the department. These assessment methods encourage students to self-reflect, be critical, have an appreciation of different perspectives and be able to analyse different cultural perspectives. This prompts students to incorporate both personal and international perspectives into their work and places a focus on the international audiences for their outputs. One of the advantages of the assessment methods being much more flexible and more authentic, is that they reflect real-world tasks that the students might find relevant for their future careers.
Within the department, there is a focus on connections, rather than just teaching the history of a different country. For example, in a second-year module students are taught about histories of race, with a focus on the USA, but more recently the module has been opened up so that British comparisons are introduced, and transatlantic links are explored.
There is also a focus on addressing the fact that Britain and Europe do not operate in a vacuum – and that international history is very much connected with British history. The fact that ‘the modern world’, from an international perspective, can hinge on the West and the enlightenment is explored, and the question is asked ‘why did this happen in Britain in the first instance and not in China or India?’ Students are asked to consider why it didn’t happen elsewhere and what impact that might have had.
In making these comparisons between national contexts, students gain a more profound understanding of the factors behind each nation’s past, whilst being encouraged to make comparisons between dominant cultural narratives and other national contexts of their choosing. By doing so, the students become more able to reflect upon what they take for granted, and further appreciate how different groups of people live across both time and place.