The magnificence of Model United Nations: stretch and challenge for all your students

This is a quick post to champion the glories of the Model United Nations activity and to explain why it might help your students.  Some of you will know all about this so, in the words of the immortal Frank Drebin, nothing to see here.MUN

The first time I ever saw a MUN in full flow I was gobsmacked.  Where’s the teacher?  What’s going on?  Why are these students not sitting around, chatting, off-task malingering and timewasting?  Why do they look utterly serious and focussed on the task at hand?  And that was just a committee.  I then had the formality of a General Assembly (GA) to witness:  five students sitting at a desk and commanding a vast school hall, simultaneously inviting delegates to address the floor (‘Brazil you have been recognised.’), listening to  speeches, no, listening really hard to  speeches, judging the pace and mood of a debate, keeping track of time, reading and writing notes to delegates, responding to fierce Points of Information and Points of Order from the floor; in short, multi-tasking before the term was in common use and doing so with an effortless ease that would put most teachers to shame, myself very much included.  Not that the presence or absence of teachers seemed to make any difference anyway….The teacher who introduced me to MUN said that it had given him some of the most fulfilling experiences of his career, and I can now see why.  Great shout, Tim Woffenden.

And it hasn’t changed since.  Dozens of MUNs later, the sheer visceral thrill of seeing students lobbying, researching and debating to a high level (and the commensurate disappointment when they don’t) produces a physical response.  Am I sounding keen enough?  Why else would sixteen schools send a total of 200 sixth-form delegates to our Bristol Grammar School MUN on a wet Saturday in early February if they weren’t convinced of the benefits of taking part?  Some schools sent two or three teachers as advisers.  My school is a busy independent day school, but we had state and independent schools attending, including one whose teachers left Brighton at 4.45am to get to Bristol for the day, and then had to get home afterwards. Now that’s what I call commitment.

Martin Robinson @SurrealAnarchy in Trivium (Independent Thinking Press, 2013) avers that the purpose of education is to change people’s lives.  One way to enable this is to look at classical and medieval models of the trivium, the core skills of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric.  How can we construct a trivium for the twenty-first century, asks Martin?  Well, perhaps the Model United Nations and similar activities could make a tiny contribution.  It’s cheap, cheerful, doesn’t reinvent the wheel, doesn’t throw out everything you’ve already learned and requires enthusiasm more than expertise.  What’s not to like?

How does it work?  It’s really a school debating club, or role play.  Best advice is to start small and manageable with a lunchtime or afterschool club or activity and a topic or theme very much in the news.  As with the trivium there are three core elements to MUN.

1.  Research and resolution writing

Random googling and internet trawling is the bugbear of many a teacher, and MUN builds in rigour here.  The committee structure of the United Nations is aped by its Model junior, so many contemporary news topics fall under the auspices of a committee.  For example, concerns about global warming and climate change will fall under the Environment Committee; issues surrounding child soldiers might come under the Human Rights Committee; then there are powerful bodies like the Political Committee or Security Council. If students go to the websites of MUNs such as Cheadle Hulme (known to devotees as MUNCH) they will find briefing papers produced ahead of their conference to aid delegates and direct their research, with lots of links.  These can be used to indicate the depth of knowledge needed to flourish at MUN.  Knowledge really is power.  At first students may need directive practice, but they rapidly move to guided and then independent practice – or the I-we-you model used by Doug Lemov which Martin Robinson in turn discusses in his book.  Research skills soon blossom:  Embassy websites, the brilliant resources offered by NGOs, The Economist, The Times, JSTOR, the United Nations itself.  They move from the shallows to depth, from insight to information, from scan to substance.  This happens at their own pace, according to their own abilities and interests – doesn’t that have something to do with differentiation, too?

Resolution writing has its own specific, sometimes frustrating grammar.  Rules rule.  Preambulatory clauses require careful formulation to introduce and contextualise a problem; operative clauses demand absolute precision and concision.  Constructing a resolution offers stretch and challenge for the most able students, and the process of drafting, modelling and remodelling to perfection is entirely what Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence advocates.  Questioning, thinking, debating with others what to include and what to omit is an internal and shared dialectic.  What will this clause achieve?  Is this whole resolution likely to be thrown out or amended in debate- unless we add or take out this clause?  Wow, it’s exciting work even trying to get it right, and gutting to see a resolution or amendment demolished.

2.  Lobbying:  it may be dialectic or it may be rhetoric, but either way MUN requires it and allocates generous time for it.  This means that a resolution or an amendment has to attract signatories and support if it is to be chosen for debate amidst competing resolutions or amendments, and if it is to be voted through at the end of the debate.  This needs persuasion, inducement, cajoling, arm-twisting, and even threatening – within the bounds of acceptable MUN tolerances.  Students have to talk to peers they may not know, or at first like, but the goodwill of MUN invariably triumphs and the whole process, well, it just works.  Interestingly, the time allocated at MUNs for lobbying is often far greater than I as a teacher allow students ‘to discuss’ an issue, so that’s certainly something to take on board in lesson planning.

3  Debating:  the rhetoric here involves listening as much as speaking.  How can you contribute if you haven’t really heard what the delegate from China has said about same-sex marriage, or what the Ivory Coast representative is proposing to tackle the international arms trade?  Formulating an off-the-cuff response to a complex issue in front of other people is a skill that’s acquired and then polished.    Rhetoric in MUN terms ultimately has to be positive, because success means having a resolution strengthened, improved and then passed.  Clapping is then in order.  Declarations of war and motions to evict a country are so not MUN.

Cheeringly, hearteningly, MUN is a great leveller because the USAs and Russias and Chinas are often out-researched, out-lobbied and out-debated by Chad, Rwanda or South Sudan, and that is recognised in the prize-giving which ends most MUN conferences.  In that respect, perhaps MUN is just a game after all.

All this can be done in a lunch hour.   It can be done in your classroom, or some classrooms and a lecture hall or school hall.  If your students get the bug, you can take them to a one-day MUN near you (lots have been introduced recently) or a three-day residential MUN like the ones at Haileybury, Cheadle Hulme or George Watson’s, Edinburgh.  If they really get the bug there are MUNs around the world in The Hague, or Geneva or New York or Hong Kong. There is an MUN Society at Bristol University and at lots of unis.  Needless to say, the CV and Personal Statement possibilities are rich.

If MUN doesn’t stretch and challenge your students, I can only say I’m sorry, but it has certainly done that for mine.  Most schools have a Mission Statement or Aims which talk about producing well-rounded, civilised students who are ready to join society with skills designed to make them confident citizens of the 21st century.  Or something along those lines.  MUN won’t do that on its own, but it will help, and it sure ain’t box-ticking.  If MUN gives this much fulfilment to lots of teachers I’ve known who commit hours to it, at weekends and after school, imagine how much good it’s doing on its own terms for the literally tens of thousands of students across the world who experience it.

MUN is independent learning.  It’s individual, it’s collaborative, it’s teamwork, it’s communication skills, it’s rule-based game-playing and it just works. For that, it’s worth putting out the flags.



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