Initially, I found this area of the course to be potentially impossibly broad, never knowing ‘how much was enough’. So I decided to take a specific tack which I’ve developed over the last 3 year groups. Here it is:
While this is one of the areas of the course that is relatively mechanical in terms of gathering relevant data (from sources like www.citizensinformation.ie) it is a really good example of trying to translate information into opinion. Two or three different students can legitimately find themselves forming opposing, but equally valid, opinions about how the systems of elections or governmental structures can work. Having covered a lot of introductory material on key thinkers at the start of fifth year, I find this topic an excellent way to introduce/develop group work where students are supporting each other (and where I get to take a back seat!). It’s a shift in gear that the students respond well to (touch wood).
I’m not saying that this is the only way to approach the topic, but here’s how I go about doing it. I waited until the recent by-election in Dublin Mid-West – our constituency – to do it, so that students could follow election events in relative real time. That won’t be possible every time, obviously, but there’s nearly always some kind of election happening somewhere in the world that you can piggy back on!
- Download and print (2-sided if possible) the relevant worksheet and follow the process I outline below. I have a PDF( To what extent does the Irish Political System Represent the ‘Will of the People’) that will print easily, and a MS Word version( To what extent does the Irish Political System Represent the ‘Will of the People’)that you can adapt to suit your purposes….
- Break students into groups of 4.
- Ask them to divide the topics for research and discussion amongst themselves. For the sake of simplicity, I ask them to choose one area from each side of the page (this will make the feedback process easier for them, trust me, it was a disaster first time I tried it!) Each student, therefore, has two topics to investigate in detail.
- Depending on the overall class ability, give them 4-5 class period/days to undertake their research.
- They report back to their group and disseminate their findings so that every student has all 8 categories complete on their sheet, and where each has had the experience of being the ‘expert’ on at least 2 topics (and can contribute on the others). If issues are a bit problematic, or multiple students are struggling with aspects of the research, there’s no harm to do a bit of ‘direct instruction’ – the auld “Chalk and Talk” if you will…
- Introduce the Idea of ‘Preponderance of Evidence’ – i.e. do you have more information in the “Represents the people well” category or the “Represents the people poorly” category? If you have 5 arguments for and 2 against, do you think that makes “For” a viable argument?
- When they’ve completed their sheet, they might end up looking something like this:
- Introduce the idea of ‘Weighting’ their opinions. Are all arguments equally valid? I then tell a made-up anecdote about how well my weekend went: 3 good things (dinner with my wife in Nandos (Classy guy), watched a football match with my son, won 25 quid on a lotto ticket) and 1 bad thing (my best friend died – not really!) are these events equal in ‘weight’? Did I, overall, have a good weekend? This helps the student to see that volume of information is not the same as quality of information.
- Ask them to weight their opinions in each category with this new insight.
- Now, to form an overall opinion, they must decide whether the ‘preponderance of the (weighted) evidence’ across all categories helps them to answer the question positively or negatively.
- To present a “Critical Evaluation” (where they make a clear argument, but also offer at least some balance) the students then:
- Take a position on the topic (i.e. Answer the Question directly up front)
- Select the 3 arguments/topics that best support their position (each of which will be developed into a clear paragraph)
- Select the ‘weakest’ of the counter-arguments that they can easily debunk (forming their ‘counter-narrative’ paragraph)
- Sketch an outline introduction and conclusion (where they offer suggestions for reform, or indicate other systems/countries which could be emulated to improve the Irish system)
Having undergone this process, you then ask students to write their response in the form of a ‘Critical Essay’ as they might be asked to do in the exam. Alternatively, you could give it as an actual exam question – it’s really up to you to decide what you think is the most useful way…
The last little grenade that I throw into the mix is to ask them “Is there actually such a thing as ‘the will of the people’?” How can such a diverse group of people be described as having a ‘singular’ view of the world or society? Are there times when there will be a broad consensus (what are they), and time when there’s be a massive divergence of opinion (what might those look like)? Is a discussion of the terms/terminology of the question, where you challenge the very premise of the question something that is appropriate to the introduction and/or conclusion of the essay? Should they avoid that argument altogether?
This tends to mess with their heads a little bit, but it seems to me that this is exactly the kind of outcome I’d want with a topic like this… then again, maybe I’m just a sadist!
Best of luck, and hopefully you’ll get a class full of essays that deal with different issues, but in an equally rigorous and critical manner.