5 Sep '13

News My best lesson: using social media to connect pupils and politicians

Mike Britland's students took to Twitter to learn about political ideologies and debates. He explains how the lesson helped them feel part of the system

At the end of my first lesson teaching AS politics, one of my students found me at break time to give me some feedback. She stood in my room and declared, with much fanfare, that she was "blown away" by my previous lesson. I stood there with a self-satisfied glow. I had been supremely worried about teaching a very academic subject, so this was just the vilification I needed.

Unfortunately, the glow faded as quickly as it arrived when said student informed me that she understood nothing from the lesson. As this was so early on in the course, the conversation filled me with dread and signaled a complete change in approach to how I taught the course.

My original approach was 'stimulated debate' – students would go through a stimulus and debate the relevant points that were raised. But this made the assumption that they had some idea of the key concepts they were debating, which they didn't. So I decided that, for the first term at least, I would utilise my 'teachnology' skills.

I wanted to get my students to understand some of the basic concepts of politics and the ideologies of the various parties. My ultimate goal was to get my students following some of the main players in British politics on various social networks, to engage them in debate and ask them to explain their party's views. To get to this stage, however, the students needed a good understanding of who to follow and what the parties they were associated with.

For the first part of the lesson, the students worked in small groups and brainstormed prominent politicians. This group work was really useful as it meant the kids weren't working from a limited pool of knowledge and could share names. Once students had engaged with this activity they used a fantastic online resource, Padlet, to post the names that they gathered. These names were then grouped according to party allegiance or ideology. This information was then exported and shared with all the class in a PDF format.

Some of the politicians under review were of the more interesting type and I was pleasantly surprised to find that students knew who Nigel Farage and George Galloway were. The diverse nature of the politicians under the spotlight was refreshing and the students were encouraged by their own knowledge.

This activity naturally allowed students to use the selection of politicians discussed and delve a little deeper into their ideologies and the party system. Working in different groups students chose a selection of the identified politicians and conducted deeper research.

Each group were given access to a blank presentation, through Google Drive. Each member of the group was given a slide to present information about their chosen figure. The beauty of this activity was because the presentation was cloud based, students didn't need to sit in close proximity to each other. Using the chat facility on Google was particularly handy because students could communicate with each other on their progress.

Once the presentations were complete, the students presented their research to the other groups. At the end of the presentations, the audience asked questions, which consolidated learning and prompted debate.

Leading into the next lesson, students were asked to follow a range of politicians, some of whom could be from their research in the previous lesson. A number of students chose to follow George Galloway and were a little taken with the Respect MP. It may seem silly but as soon as they found a politician that they could engage with, their level of participation within class discussions grew. It was not surprising that the students were taken with Mr Galloway in particular – he was the only MP to reply.

When teaching this lesson again, we will build structured questions into the activity. By doing this I hope that the questions will be more targeted to each individual MP – not simply asking their opinion on a general point, which will hopefully garner a better response rate.

The research and use of technology placed the task firmly in their hands and allowed them the freedom to explore concepts in an inviting environment. By asking students to use mediums that they are familiar with, it placed politics into sphere that connected with them on a level they understood and had an affinity with. The immediacy of these social networks also allowed students to feel that they were part of the system.

The major challenge, when undertaking such an activity using social networking, is access to the relevant network. We used Twitter and in some schools allowing students access can be a big no-no. Should you encounter such an issue, speak to your network manager and a relevant member of your senior leadership team. If you explain the need and usefulness of such an activity, you could sway the relevant people.

The biggest piece of advice I would offer before tackling a lesson of the kind is to ensure, and it sounds funny saying it, that you are as familiar with Twitter as you can be. Immerse yourself with hashtags, following, searching, direct messaging and blocking. Be vigilant to the 'people' who follow you as some may not be appropriate – this includes other students. You could get around this issue by setting up a department/school Twitter account – this way there can be no blurring of the professional/personal line.

We couldn't follow this type of lesson for the whole year because of the essay based nature of assessment. However, by evaluating my practice and approaching the lesson from a different angle, it helped engage my students and capture their attention.

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