And the gold medal goes to… Critical thinking on how we label states—Case Study Rwanda

In opposition to the silver medal winner, the learning activity that was OVERWHELMINGLY  considered to be the task that most influenced student thinking (as voted for by students via their final reflective writing assignment), did require a lot of work—on both our parts.  It was in fact an activity that I had planned on scrapping  because it is so labor intensive on me[i], requires students to really engage and think independently during the class (which is of course OK! But this class is scheduled right around mid-terms when students’ energy levels take a big dip and some students are generally resistant to ‘heavy’ forms of active learning), and it requires a really good debrief at the end to ensure that the lessons learned are reinforced.  I find it exhausting, even though I always feel it has gone smoothly.  Also, if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure the students were learning as much as I had hoped from it.

I was wrong.  The fact that almost twice as many students wrote about this session in their final reflections compared to the Saliency activity (the silver medal winner) has left this activity, or at least some version of it, firmly established in my syllabus.    The lessons learned here by students (taken from their end of term written reflections)[ii] reveal the activity’s ability to simultaneously teach a range of intellectual skills and offered some interesting moments in terms of students’ personal and academic growth.

In preparation for the class, students read the course textbook where the ‘basics’ of the categorization of ‘strong v weak v failing v collapsed’ states is described.  Here the indicators that allow these measurements to be made are defined and described.  Their second reading for the week presents a more critical view of this categorization.[iii]  I also put a folder up on the course website that contains a series of short articles/data sets regarding Rwanda.  These documents include reports on Rwanda’s progress from the Human Development Index,  internal crime and safety reports, local and international news articles etc.


Part One:  Evidence based categorization

The activity is split into two main tasks.  The first is more of a data gathering and interpretation exercise.  Students are provided with a worksheet that includes a chart they need to fill in. Using the documents provided on the course website and using any other statistics or data they can find online, they try to make an evidence based conclusion regarding whether Rwanda is currently a strong, weak or failing state.  They are challenged to categorize Rwanda as strong/weak/failing on each of the indicators explored in the textbook (capacity, autonomy, internal legitimacy, external legitimacy) and provide the exact statistics/pieces of data they are using to make that claim.  Many students found that Rwanda was ‘strong’ on some indicators and ‘weak’  or even ‘failing’ on others.   During the debrief we discovered that students had ranked Rwanda differently in some categories, despite working with the same data sets.

Many students noted how this was a useful exercise in terms of thinking about methodology and subjectivity in analysis.  Some  discussed how it reinforced the importance of making evidence based statements in class discussions and assignments.   In this regard, one student noted:

‘I also enjoyed how the worksheet allowed me to move from my own perceptions and opinions of what I already thought I knew to showing me how to do proper research and analyzing the nation myself in order to strengthen my knowledge of weak/failed/strong states’

And of course there are large data sets that combine all of the indicators and provide a broad ranking of each country in relation to others on a scale.  However, several students noted the use of such a big data set might obscure some interesting anomalies or conflicting data—making note that even though overall Rwanda might be classified as ‘weak’, such a generalization or ‘averaging’ of indicators obscured policy areas where Rwanda was doing well.  These students noted how numbers and quantitative indexes help us generalize and rank but qualitative data and the exploration of individual indicators is needed to get a complete picture of a case study.  This was a particularly important moment in terms of some students reconsidering their epistemic stance and the need to delve more deeply into statements presented as ‘truth’.  As one student noted in their reflection on this activity:

‘I recognize slants that I have within myself, as well it has allowed me to be more critical of the sources of information and whether or not such an argument or statement is more or less powerful; before I would assume all statements to be equal as I would not challenge such ideas much past their grammar or obvious rhetoric.’


Part Two:  Critical thinking—assessing critiques of the ‘weak state’ discourse

On the back of the handout is where I expect students to engage with the critical reading—to reflect on the experience they just had regarding categorizing Rwanda, and consider it in relation to concerns raised by those who critique the ‘weak states’ discourse.  With the people around them, students are asked to discuss and record their answers to the following questions.

  1. Based on your answers above—how would you classify this state OVERALL: Strong, Weak or Failing?
  2. If you had different answers in the first column (ie some indicators suggested a strong state, other indicators suggested a weak state) how did you make a final decision about the overall categorization of the state? Did you view some indicators as more important?
  3. Were there any interesting debates between you and your colleagues on how to categorize and what evidence to use?

In their reflections, a lot of students discussed how  exploring these questions led them to a belief that the rankings were unfair as they failed to capture progress/positive moves forward—states could still be labelled pejoratively as ‘weak’ despite making significant progress on some indicators (which suggests strength).  For example, one student noted that

‘Its HDI went from 0.277 in 1980 to 0.434 in 2012, which means, although the current HDI value is still quite low, there has been significant progress in human development in the country and it feels unfair to classify such a leap forward as weak; especially after the tragedy it went through in 1993’

While independent critical reflections such as the above were encouraging to see, there were also great moments of students understanding the ramifications of such critiques and addressing counter-arguments to the critiques of the discourse.  For example, one student concluded that

‘Determining the difference between a strong, weak, failing, and failed state is hard as contradictions in the data are apparent. However, politics itself is hard to define, but as political scientist we have to define with the best and legitimate system available in order to make comparisons. Comparisons allow for better policy decisions, thereby, a more stable political order’

What was nice to see in all of the examples above is students’ growing ability to be specific and concise in applying concrete facts/data to quite abstract conceptual debates that they were very briefly exposed to in readings and lectures.   One of my biggest concerns with essays in undergraduate level essays is students inability to link case study data in a meaningful way with some of the conceptual debates to which they are drawn.   For example, it is not uncommon to see students say something akin to ‘Country X’s relationship with Country Y is neo-colonial’ but then fail to provide the richer explanation of exactly why.  This case study allowed them to practice this in a supported and low stakes way and their reflections showcased their growing ability to do so.   It has encouraged me to make greater use of Case Study type activities, even if labour intensive.  The payoff makes it worth it.


[i] Why is it so labour intensive?

  1. The case study materials you select need to be carefully thought out, and succinct. Posting whole journal articles, 30 page NGO reports etc is not really an option unless you want to turn this into a much larger assignment or have it spread out over several weeks (which wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but is difficult in an intro level course which covers a lot of topics)
  2. The above materials need to be updated year on year so as to reflect any political changes/major events
  3. The above materials need to be posted on course website in a timely manner, so no last minute lesson planning!
  4. I always bring a few hard copy packages of these materials so that students who don’t have their computers with them in class or have problems reading off computer screens aren’t excluded.
  5. I personally prefer to use a handout to keep students on task/structured in their work. So this needs preparing, copying, handing out etc.

[ii] A note on research ethics: students were able to opt out of this research project and the content of their written reflections has not been used for the study.

[iii] I assign the following reference, but there are many other’s one could use. Gruffydd Jones, Branwen (2013) ’Good governance’ and ‘state failure’: genealogies of imperial discourse’. Cambridge Review of International Affairs26(1),49-70.



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