Embrace the chaos of real-world learning experiences

Unaccompanied student assignments abroad are a terrifying but essential part of the high-fidelity learning mix. Here, Jim Entwistle shares his four key points of assignments beyond the safety net

Jim Entwistle's avatar
Teesside University
27 Nov 2023
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I used to work for a medical charity where the doctors would talk about the “human factors” that affect team and individual performance. Humans are fallible, the thinking goes, and can let you down through one vulnerability or another. Be it rage, jealousy, lust or sandwiches, too much or too little can stop a medic performing at their best.   

When you’re holding someone’s life in your shaking hands on a rainy roadside, you haven’t eaten for 12 hours and that row with your husband is still half on your mind, it all has an effect. Does he think the cat litter tray cleans itself? No, it does not. Pass the scalpel.

It’s not disrespectful to my journalism students to say that lives are not resting in their hands – but the same principle applies. We teach them news-writing. We give them a deadline, crank up the pressure and hope they don’t buckle. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they walk clean away from it, safe in the knowledge that the worst they’ll get for skipping that assignment is a mild rebuke.

Drills, simulations and live briefs all have a part to play in creating a high-fidelity learning environment for our journalism students. But when it comes down to it, there’s always a safety net. We can’t let them fall. Can we?

Why real-world learning experiences matter

We go out of our way to find authentic real-world experiences for our journalism students. So, when Jane Allen, managing director of Quizzing.com, visited our sport journalism students in October and asked if anyone would fancy a trip to Spain to cover the forthcoming international quizzing championships – competitive quizzing’s World Cup – it seemed a perfect opportunity.

The trip was no holiday. The three students assigned were to arrive in Malaga at Friday lunchtime, work through the afternoon and into the evening and all day Saturday, before flying home at Sunday lunchtime. They would have access to the world’s best quizzers, including global stars from The Chase, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Eggheads. They would be responsible for the event’s content output, creating video, audio and written work to inform and entertain an international audience. And they would be doing it without any supervision. Three lads, either in their teenage years or just out of them, flying solo to a Spanish resort. What – other than the destruction of our institutional reputation – could go wrong?

In fact, of course, it was a terrific success. Much more of a success, I would suggest, than if a member of staff had accompanied them, acting as that smothering safety net. Because when you raise the expectation on an individual, when you load them with responsibility and make clear the stakes, supported only at arm’s length, I would argue that most people will rise to the occasion.

Tips for a successful student-led foreign assignment

Here are my four learning points from organising a student-led overseas assignment:

  1. Move fast. The more you think about it, the more it might seem like a terrible idea. Trust your instinct, work with enthusiastic allies and roll with the momentum.  
  2. Get your blinkers on. You’re going to hear a lot of reasons why the trip might be a terrible idea. Accounts will balk at the money. Health and safety will balk at the risk assessment. PR will balk at the potential for reputational damage. There’s going to be a lot of balking. Ignore it and plough on.
  3. Trust your partners. These trips won’t always work. At some point, the odds are that someone is going to let you down. And when it happens, your organising team needs to be an incorruptible unit. “If destruction be our lot,” Abraham Lincoln said in his Lyceum address, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” Lincoln may have been talking about the fragile existence of his fractured nation, but his words – happily for this article – also apply to school trip organising committees.
  4. Show your vulnerability. I sat the students down before the Spain trip and gave an emotional performance. “You’re representing the university – don’t let us down – don’t let me down,” I pleaded, my voice breaking slightly at the end, moisture glistening in my eyes. I’m not sure if this was inspirational leadership or pathetic weakness, but it did the trick. The lads clearly didn’t want to witness the full mental breakdown of their 39-year-old lecturer and behaved impeccably.

In the healthcare setting, it is only by first understanding human factors and their impact on performance that you can grow and learn as a practitioner. And it is only by exposure to real-world pressurised scenarios that you can effectively understand human factors in practice. That’s why it is vital that we continue to offer what are often uncomfortably challenging assignments for our students. We’re not removing the safety net altogether; it’s all about making that net a little bit less accommodating.

‘Being left to our own devices taught me a lot’

Danny Nicholson, second-year sport journalism student, was one of those on the trip. He said: “As a student, it’s hard going from being told exactly what is needed from you and when it is needed to then basically being given a blank canvas with the expectation that you need to make something good.

“At first, after a long time going back and forth, it felt like we had made no progress at all. But we persevered and figured it out, essentially through brute-forcing it. We composed ourselves as a group and got through it by recognising what we can do as individuals and playing to our strengths.

“Being left to our own devices taught me a lot. It helped me realise that when panicking about trying to produce something with the pressure on, it’s better to just take a step back and compose yourself. This was somewhere where anything could go wrong and that really put things into perspective of what it’s like to do it for real. 

“I also learned that Paul ‘The Sinnerman’ Sinha likes parmos [Teesside’s famous chicken delicacy].”

Jim Entwistle is course leader for journalism and sport journalism at Teesside University.

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