The LSE is getting back to its social science roots

Britain's social-science powerhouse has drafted in its biggest names to teach undergraduates about the major issues facing today's world
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The Independent Online

This term, Britain's social-science powerhouse, the London School of Economics (LSE), is introducing an ambitious compulsory new course for first and second-year students taught by some of its most glittering academics and concentrating on the big questions of today.

Called "LSE 100", it attempts to take the college back to its roots in the 19th century when the Fabian founders Beatrice and Sidney Webb established the institution to contribute to the improvement of society by the study of its problems. Students will study questions such as "Is poverty history?" and "How should we manage climate change?" as part of a drive to broaden what they learn and give them the skills they need in the modern world. The programme will be in addition to their degree courses and will involve them in more work – though the students don't seem to mind this.

The LSE's director, Howard Davies, believes this will give students an extra string to their bow. "It's important for us to say that LSE graduates have experience in analysing and debating some of the big issues of our time," he says. "They not only have a real depth and analytical understanding of their subject area but this way we can ensure that they engage in issues of public policy, contemporary history, the economy and society as well."

The course is innovative in a number of ways. Students will be actively participating in what they learn through a mixture of group work, debates and writing exercises. And new technology – in the shape of clickers enabling students to give instant opinions – will be employed at the LSE for the first time.

According to Dr Jonathan Leape, the course director, the point of the new programme is to get LSE students thinking like social scientists. "No important issue can be fully understood through a single lens and this course aims to produce students whose intellectual grounding in their discipline is complemented by an understanding of different ways of thinking," he says. "In the current syllabus, for example, students examine statistical evidence on potential economic losses from global warming to assess the role of risk in managing climate change and use historical documents from the Kremlin and the CIA to analyse the failure to predict the end of the Cold War."

The first module on poverty was taught last week to a pilot group of 400 first-year students by the economic historian Professor Mary Morgan. The students looked at the statistics and at the maps produced by the reformer Charles Booth in the 19th century, which are housed at the LSE. In class later, they were asked to look at the issue in today's international context and to consider whether the United Nations was right to choose the "dollar-a-day" measure for its Millennium Development Goal – to halve the number of people in the world whose income is less that a dollar a day. This week the students will have moved on to a longer module lasting three weeks, on the subject of climate change, starting with a lecture by the expert Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, and moving on eventually to a written exercise on the Copenhagen agreement.

As well as teaching students to be social scientists, the course aims to develop their research and communication skills. The LSE is hoping to give its students the ability to apply what they know and to go out and communicate this to the wider world just as the Fabians did more than a century ago. This development came after employers had informed the LSE that, while its students were good at talking about their subject, they were not as good when they were asked broader questions. Moreover, they fell down when it came to constructing and expressing arguments.

The new course came out of an initiative two years ago to improve the LSE's teaching. Like many universities around the world, including Harvard, the college became concerned that the standard of teaching did not match the research. A task force was set up, and a report produced with 43 recommendations that are being implemented at a cost of £3m a year. Rethinking the curriculum was part of this. "We reached the conclusion that we didn't want to go the way of some institutions like the Universities of Harvard and Aberdeen and introduce wholesale change in our curriculum structure because we really think our departments and disciplinary programmes are for the most part a real strength," says Dr Leape.

"On the other hand, there was concern that somehow students were not getting all they needed from the LSE. We were not taking full advantage of the LSE for our students. There were some programmes where they could pass through three years and not take full advantage of the intellectual richness of the school."