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Planning our Future
There are disciplines where students need to learn a specific set of skills and competencies to prepare them for their professional careers. Community engaged learning experiences that are well planned can offer a valuable opportunity for lecturers to develop these attributes and values in their students as well as providing unique learning experiences for students to grapple with the complexities of the world.
For Jeanette Fitzsimons, lecturer on the Masters in Planning and Sustainable Development (MPlan), moving outside the traditional classroom learning environment enhanced her students’ ability to grow and develop as future professionals.
Embedded in the Module
Community engaged learning (CEL) as a pedagogy naturally prompts students to be problem solvers, excellent communicators, reflective practitioners and to understand the processes and efforts involved in reaching consensus when working with large groups (members of the public). These are hard earned skills and competencies that will stand to graduates of the MPlan as they pursue their professional careers.
Jeanette and her colleagues recognised the need for their MPlan programme to provide opportunities for students to work with the public on real challenges off campus. One of the skills-centred modules; PD6113 Information and Engagement Skills in Planning has CEL as an integral component. This module is mandatory for the MPlan and the one-year Postgraduate Diploma in Planning and Sustainable Development students. Each year the Centre for Planning Education and Research secures a partnership with a community group for the module. In 2019, students worked with residents of Glounthaune to consider the future of their village. Glounthaune is designated as a ‘key village’ in the Cork County Development Plan 2014, as the village is earmarked to grow substantially due to its rail connection to the city centre. The Glounthaune residents were eager to engage in a process of collecting the thoughts and concerns of their community, to input into the future planning policies for their much loved village. Engaging with the planning students provided residents with a facilitated and focused forum to have their voice heard and to begin to influence the planning policy that affects their lives.
The community partners invited the Glounthaune residents to a ‘Community Engagement Night’ with the students to discuss ‘How would you Shape Glounthaune?’ Before engaging with Glounthaune residents, Jeanette created a series of role play scenarios with students in the classroom so they could practice and prepare for what was to come. To structure the process and to assist all participants to organise the emerging thoughts, Jeanette adopted an established, disciplinary-grounded tool called The Place Standard Tool which is designed to “structure conversations about place”. The Place Standard Tool is a framework originally designed in Scotland as a tool to encourage conversations around planning themes. “It allows you to think about the physical elements of a place (for example its buildings, spaces, and transport links) as well as the social aspects (for example whether people feel they have a say in decision making). The tool provides prompts for discussions, allowing the participants to consider all the elements of a place in a methodical way in smaller groups.
On the night of the event, the attendees were randomly organised into eight groups. Each group spent ten minutes engaged in a facilitated discussion with two students using a bespoke set of themes to uncover their views on various aspects of Glounthaune as a place before agreeing on a group rating for that theme and then moving onto the next theme. The key issues that were raised by the participants were recorded on post-it notes and collected. At the end of the rotations, each participant was given three red and three green stickers to use to highlight recorded feedback they agreed with (green stickers) or disagreed with (red stickers).
Back on campus, the students collated the feedback into a report over the final weeks of the semester, which was part of their marked coursework. This work was edited by Jeanette and shared with the Glounthaune community group. The students also reflected in a journal on their experience and learning in this project as part of their marked assignments. It was evident from their reflections this experience was a rich one for the students and gave them a taste of what their planning careers in the future would be like. The overall learning experience for the students is rich and stimulates a passion for engaging with communities in the future. The community partners also benefited; they used the report to support their submissions to consultation by the local Planning Authority on the future of their village.
A Growing Community of Practice
This example illustrates what can be done within particular programmes and the learning opportunities that can accrue for all involved. Not all staff will be in a position to design a CEL module from scratch so making adaptations and small changes to existing modules and across programmes is a good compromise or starting point. It also highlights that there are CEL resources and tools available to staff that are disciplinary specific, tools which serve a particular purpose and facilitate staff to achieve their desired goals.
If your CEL initiative requires you to generate and develop discussions along with your students and community partners, we recommend that you examine your disciplinary area to see if there are proven resources that you can use for your own CEL projects rather than reinventing the wheel. Look at the literature, ask colleagues both in Ireland and internationally what they use to structure their CEL interactions.
In many cases there may not be proven, disciplinary specific tools such as the Place Standard Tool so maybe you will pave the way for colleagues by establishing your own tool based on your learnings. Alternatively, you can rely on many of the generic, established tools utilised in CEL initiatives, some of which are discussed in the article entitled “Teaching Strategies for Community Engaged Learning Initiatives”.