Opinion-Policy Nexus

My goal in PO 263, which is the introductory course on Canadian political institutions, is to add one new active learning unit every year I teach it.  Last year, I introduced a flipped classroom activity on the Supreme Court of Canada, which I've blogged about previously and will be using again in two weeks.

The new activity I added this year was for my federalism unit.  Prior to class, students completed two readings (e.g. a textbook chapter and a journal article), a tutorial discussion, and an online quiz on the textbook reading.  In class, I lectured for an hour (interspersed with "top hat monocle" activities) on the various forces that have placed stress on our Canadian federal system.

After the break, I divided the students into groups of five or six and told them the following:

“You have been hired by the government of Canada to recommend a wholesale redesign of Canada’s federal system. You have been given complete freedom to make whatever recommendations you wish to make. Reflecting on the knowledge you have acquired about Canadian federalism and how it has developed over time, how would you redesign the Canadian federal system?”

The groups were given 40 minutes to draw up and email me a proposal for how they might change our federal division of powers.  They were also to provide a one minute presentation summarizing their main changes and why.

Incentives in the form of classroom participation and bonus marks were also added to encourage students to participate.

The results were pretty fantastic.  All of the students were involved in the discussions and the proposals they generated were very interesting, but also a useful launching pad for a class discussion about some enduring themes in the course: e.g. the dynamics of institutional change and institutional design. We also discussed whether the diversity in the proposals reflected the impossibility of designing a federal system to accommodate all interests and thus separatism is inevitable, or whether the diversity combined with the resilience of the Canadian federation indicates that federalism is the solution to managing countries like Canada.

At the end of class, lots of smiles and energy. During class, lots of good discussion in the groups.

It's certainly a activity I'll use again in the future but maybe add some additional steps, such as having students vote on proposals or "vote with their feet"!

UPDATE: Another thing I would do next time would be to tell the class about the activity before they completed the various homework activities (e.g. the readings, tutorials, and online quiz) and attended lecture.  I think if the students knew what was coming, the quality of the proposals would be much better.  As well, recent research suggests that "problem-based" learned activities are effective mainly because they force students to do more prep work which in turn results in more successful learning.  Interestingly, the "problem-based" activity itself seems to only have a limited impact on learning outcomes.  At least that's the finding reported in a recent PS: Political Science and Politics article. Check out that article, written by Robert P. Amyot (Hastings College), here.

UPDATE PART2: Here is the activity sheet for anyone who wants to use this activity and here are the slides I used to introduce the activity.