New journalism, new teaching style

I decided recently to change the way that I teach the Canadian Government and Politics class.

Much of the literature on teaching reminds us that at the early stages of inquiry we want to try to make learning relevant. I am not a big fan of the idea that everything has to relate to a student's life or experience. We actually want students to experience ideas that are unfamiliar and even uncomfortable as they become critical thinkers able to deal with the complexity of issues but it is good if the students feel that there is relevance to the learning.

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For years my way of approaching to teaching was modelled on the way I learned. I would teach about concepts, institutions, ideology etc., and then I would show how we apply them to real world politics.

This year, primarily because of my excellent students who always guide me to think about better ways to teach, I redesigned my class to make everyday politics the focus of the course while, at the same time, teaching all the same material that I had in the past. The simple solution was to begin with a newspaper article about a political issue.

Since writing this column I have come to realize at least two things: first, that there is a lot of assumed knowledge about institutions, political actors and concepts that appear daily in the news. People are generally expected to understand the complexity of the constitution, the model of government, the role of certain political figures and parties. They are expected to have this knowledge and then to understand how the day to day practices of politics and government are shaped by those roles and structures. Second, that the digital age of journalism provides a whole new way for engaged citizens to "follow the news."

Print journalism always compelled us to move forward to the next day adding more about a trending news story. We were required to follow the story attentively but, unless you kept newspaper clippings, stories would come and go and there was little way to go back in time and see how the story and the commentary had progressed.

Today, with webpages, links and keywords it is possible to go back and follow stories as they unfolded and to see what insights panned out. This new journalism means that we have to teach information literacy in different ways than we did in the past and give students tools to use all of the new technology at their disposal to contextualize the politics of the day into the politics of the past.

These reflections, the assumption of knowledge and the new journalism, were really highlighted for me by a story that I had my students examine. In May of 2017, Maura Forrest wrote a column in the National Post entitled: "Thirty years after birth of the Reform Party, its legacy lives in Conservative leadership results" in which she argued that it is now impossible for the Conservative Party not to include the values that were asserted by the Reform Party into their policy and practice.

This minor political party that pushed and cajoled its way onto the national stage represented a very real sentiment: "the west wants in." The populism and anti-elite values of western political culture were not to be ignored and their unexpected presence on the national stage reshaped the right wing of Canadian politics. From this story so much could be taught: traditional Canadian brokerage party politics challenged by the meteoric rise of a minor party, conservative and populist ideology, the role of individual political actors and so many other important elements of understanding our particular democracy.

Jump to the news of these past few weeks and there too we see the slow end of another minor party that transformed our national political stage. As seven members of the Bloc step away and form a new party, Quebec Debout, they have rejected the separatist goal of the Bloc and will "stand up" for Quebec interests within Canada. Much like the Reform Party, the Bloc impacted our national politics by forcing the two dominant parties to aggregate the interests of those disenfranchised from the national political scene. The essential demise of the Bloc Quebecois and the absorption of the Reform Party into the Conservative Party are examples of how party politics can be resilient and responsive.

News sites with historical links allow us to follow these evolutionary changes better than we ever had in the past as well as to gain more general knowledge about our political system.

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