Problem-based learning for teaching political ecology?

By Nick Kirsop-Taylor and Dan Appiah

In this blogpost we report on a recent paper we gave at the Joint International teaching and learning Conference (2019) in Brighton (UK) about using Problem-based learning (PBL) as an approach to teaching and learning for political ecology (image below).

The global climate catastrophe, the sixth global extinction event, rising waste and pollution, and general societal un-sustainability have all contributed to undergraduate students being increasingly concerned and engaged with the causes of, and finding the solutions to, the problems of the Anthropocene.

The challenge for educators is not just to ‘teach’ about the causes and potential solutions, but to act as the facilitators and enablers of the complex ecological problem-solvers of this future. Learners are increasingly aware that the solutions to these problems often require politically-orientated solutions; that is, the environmental challenges of the 21stcentury in no small measure need political as well as policy-focused solutions.

In the 2018-2019 academic year, we ran an experimental undergraduate module at the Politics department of the University of Exeter in Cornwall. The subject of political ecology was taught alongside an 11-week, group-based, problem-based learning exercise. Simon Batterbury from the University of Lancaster has drawn attention to how increasingly popular the subject of political ecology is with undergraduate learners, but teaching political ecology is stymied by a lack of effective methods. Since political ecology is an inherently inter-disciplinary and problem-orientated discipline, the synergy with PBL appeared obvious. As per the image below we followed a relatively standard form of PBL process with weekly activities (italics) supported by guest seminars from external experts (bold).

Learners self-organised into two small groups and were free to select from a range of pre-determined ‘problems’ for their group to tackle. For example, the two groups of learners chose to address problems of ‘designing a truth and reconciliation commission on historic land rights abuses in Zimbabwe’ for the fictitious client of the Government of South Africa; and, ‘reviewing and recommending changes to the compensation and resettlement programme for indigenous peoples in the wake of the Belo Monte dam’ for the incoming Bolsanaro administration in Brazil. These problems were deliberately given to counteract their initial unfamiliarity with the subject, and to orientate learners towards atypical and thorny political ecology problems that required deep thought, reflection, research, and synthesis of new ideas. An additional layer of realism was added to this where the whole exercise was framed as a simulated ‘consultancy experience’ in which the groups role-played a consultancy firm leading the delivery of a PBL solution to real-world problems. These were included to inject additional realism, to highlight the contemporary salience of these problems, and to enhance the employability-relevant transferable skills that learners might align towards.

On reflection, we found this experiment to be broadly successful for many of the reasons that PBL is usually successful – learners were challenged towards self-directed learning, it stimulated deep contextual learning and research, and it supported the development of transferable skills. That said, there were also some significant challenges raised. Most notably, learner unfamiliarity with the form and process of PBL and the self-directed approach to learning and problem-solving, and challenges of establishing and consolidating group processes and strategies for undertaking PBL activities.

Similarly, there was a serious challenge in balancing the need for taught content on the theory, thinkers, and subject of political ecology with the PBL exercise. The taught content offered important opportunities for the cross-fertilisation of theory to practice in the PBL exercise, though the depth of taught content added additional time constraints on learners that were not always welcome. The most well-received aspects of this experiment were its explicit focus on the transferability of PBL skills to professional postgraduate contexts, and the potential to enrich the PBL experience through contextual guest seminars and speakers. For example, this included existing consultants/professional problem-solvers from the field of political ecology who could relate to the problems being addressed.

In summary, the main message we would like to convey from our experiment is that PBL has the potential to be a highly effective teaching method for political ecology. The significant body of research highlighting its benefits to undergraduates were mostly bore out in our experience, but close attention needs to be paid to easing concerns and unfamiliarity with the PBL process, and/or using more efficient and targeted methods to combine the taught content with PBL. This could be supported through a greater use of the digital teaching of theory and/or the development of a dedicated PBL workbook for political ecology. Our experimental approach could be easily replicable in other Higher-Education settings, and we would welcome any opportunity to discuss our experiences and developed learning materials with other educators and learners, please email if you would like to talk.

About the authors

Dr Nick Kirsop-Taylor is a Lecturer in Political Ecology at the University of Exeter (Cornwall). Prior to developing a career in academia, he worked in the environmental public sector in national government and for a variety of environmentally-aligned voluntary organisations. Nick conducts research at the intersection of public administration and environmental politics with a clear focus on delivering tangible impact. He is constantly looking for new methods and approaches to teaching learners about the critical environmental problems of the Anthropocene, and the political and administrative routes to their solutions.

Dan Appiah is an undergraduate in the department of Politics at the University of Exeter (Cornwall). Dan is studying for a joint honours Bachelor of Arts in Politics and History and from 2019-2020 is studying in Washington DC.