The following article is divided into three episodes and aims at reviewing the methodology used and some insights based on my experience during the compulsory case-study ‘David Cameron in the face of the Brexit’, which is attended by final year Master graduates. The course still runs at the School of Public Affairs at Sciences Po and consequently some of the findings are part of an ‘ongoing work’. The aim is to briefly present some ideas observed before (episode 1), during (episode 2) and after (episode 3) the actual time in class with students, as well as providing some brief introduction to the more global teaching method of the ‘case-study’.
Classroom time when running a case-study is usually divided in two periods. All case-studies usually devote the first part to group presentations, simulations, real-life roleplay or any other research method that involves a complete direct participation from students. Such period is intended to echo as much as possible a real professional context. The case-study on Brexit follows the same structure: students spend the first hour listening and discussing about two or three group presentations prepared in advance. The groups are usually formed by 2-4 students and the actual presentation lasts no more than 7-9 minutes each. In practice, the presentations re-enact the kind of discussion that could take place among the senior leaders of a political party; or among officials attending a government meeting; or at the office of the agency leading a political campaign. Specifically, students are offered the opportunity to ‘re-draft an electoral promise regarding an in-out referendum in the 2015 Conservative Manifesto’, ‘designing and presenting an alternative claim, an alternative logo/poster, and 5 innovative arguments regarding the ‘Leave’ campaign’ or ‘designing and imagining a questionnaire ordered by the Remain camp at the beginning of the campaign to help orientate the communication strategy’. Ideally all assignments correspond to a professional situation that the instructor knows well (in my case for example, the field of comparative public opinion, qualitative and quantitative surveying methods, European policy-making and political advertising).
In retrospective, my intake is that students should be encouraged since day one of the semester to use this time of the class for two purposes: first, to take the necessary time to study the professional culture of the actors they are re-enacting in class (the process of decision-making is radically different if it takes place in a court, in a Parliament, in a lobby firm, or in a major public agency…). In that sense students can go as far as to adapt their language, their format presentation, and their conclusions based on the assessment. The second objective is, of course, to use the case-study to think out of the box and to fully deploy some skills in terms of content innovation. In comparison with more classical courses, the case-study only makes sense if students have the impression that they are not simply repeating or digesting some hard knowledge, but on the contrary, finding solutions that can only arise from them.
Finally, the second period of the class is usually devoted to a theoretical or professional-oriented presentation by the practitioner. This period proves to be more interesting if focused on three elements: a) summarising and re-playing once more the topics of the presentation – so that students have something to compare their work with; b) to offer some theoretical and/or professional insights; and more importantly; c) to offer some comparative data as a way to add some verifiable facts to the discussion. This third point proves to be particularly essential because case-studies explore real-life situations that have been rarely theorised. In that sense, the capacity to assess the validity of some arguments can often only be assumed through international comparison.
The primary strength of the methodology of the case study was its holistic approach. The case study did not just aim to analyse Brexit and its consequences or David Cameron and his actions but rather all the steps and stages that developed Brexit into a reality – from the inner politics of the Conservative party (and the Labour part as a matter of fact), and the phrasing of the referendum question to the miscomings of polling procedures and the intricacies of the negotiations between the British government and the EU. Thus, the overall added value of the methodology is understanding both in breadth and in depth the intricacies of how Brexit happened.
There were a variety of teaching skills that made the case study on Brexit stand out. Firstly, organisation – the way classes were organised in a way that made the course more stimulating and the analysis of Brexit more holistic. Given the nature of a case study, presenting to students the different important timelines and events as well as the big issues in a coherent way enhances the way we understand the issue. Another teaching skill that was particularly useful for a case study was to encourage students to think independently of what has been previously written about the event. Instead of providing already given explanations – for example, “the wording of the referendum question was misleading” – provoking students to come to their own conclusions by giving them the right background material – for example, previous referendum questions – and asking the right questions made the case study more successful.
The three elements that made the course on Brexit stimulating were, firstly, the emphasis and focus on political campaigning – this is an area that other courses do not analyse at all. Secondly, another element that made the course more stimulating was the analysis of the European Council conclusions in comparison to David Cameron’s letter. This analysis gave students the opportunity to analyse and interpret the political meaning of official documents. It is more often that students are either already given the meaning and the political implications of documents or are supposed to take official documents at face value. The opportunity to do both was unique to the Brexit case study. The third element that made the course on Brexit were the diverse assignments – they gave students the chance to work on a variety of issues both in a written (essays) and oral (presentations) form.
Dídac GUTIERREZ-PERIS, Teacher at Sciences Po and EU Research Director at Viavoice (Paris).