From Taggart to CSI Vegas, adults are being lured back into learning in an intriguing way, writes Raymond Ross
Crime may not pay but Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) is certainly paying educational dividends for 11 part-time students at Newbattle Abbey College, Midlothian.
In what the college describes as a creative way to help adult returners to enter further education or employment, the CSI students work on a scenario that involves a suspicious death in the college grounds. They suspect, as Taggart never said, "Thur's been a murrderr".
"The Newbattle CSI course is designed to deliver traditional learning skills in an innovative and engaging manner to attract adults who have been disengaged from formal learning," says Norah Fitzcharles, the college depute principal. "The course is loosely based around a popular television series, in that the students become a team of detectives who visit the scene of a crime which they have to solve by finding clues, setting up an incident room, identifying and interviewing suspects and witnesses and coming to a conclusion about the case."
The students report to their supervisor (tutor), write a report for submission to the procurator fiscal and justify their findings to a senior detective who gives them feedback on how well the evidence they submit supports their conclusions.
Their senior detective is former deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, Tom Wood, who is the recipient of a Queen's Police Medal. "It's very encouraging to see just how the kind of skills required by investigative officers in the police force can be applied to a wide range of different situations," he says. "Working on a real-life crime investigation requires a broad range of skills, such as the abilities to observe, analyse and communicate, and I can see why such skills will help the CSI students re-enter the world of education."
Learning strategies involved in the "investigation" process include brainstorming, mind-mapping, SWOT analysis (identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats); note-taking, role playing and developing observational, listening, reading and writing skills and presenting oral and written reports; developing interviewing skills, reflecting on the accuracy of conclusions and giving and receiving feedback.
"Education today has to take into account all sorts of learning styles and in this the course wins hands down," says course tutor Claire Coleman. "It takes into account visual and auditory learners as well as making use of IT, library research and the external environment. It appeals to all sorts of learning styles.
"It also scores in harnessing popular culture while the investigation procedures lend themselves to developing transferable skills, teaching students how to learn in a fun sort of way."
This is the third time the 12-week course has been run in the last two years and as it draws to a close, all 11 students intend to explore options in FE. Some have been accepted to Jewel and Esk Valley College, Stevenson College in Edinburgh or the university access course at Newbattle, and wants to join the police.
"Quite a few students became interested in criminology and we looked at it in some depth," says Mrs Coleman. "It's a very reflective course, as the students have to determine their procedures and strategies and then examine whether and why they were successful or not.
"They work as a single team but that involves small group and individual work and we create an environment in which everyone's contribution is valued. I think everyone's confidence and self-esteem has been boosted," she says.
CSI Newbattle (SQA Access III) is delivered in partnership with Access to Industry, which provides practical support and career guidance for the students whose ages range from 19 to 55 and who mostly have Standard grades and some Highers.
For the present investigation, Newbattle became a private school for boys at which a reunion of former pupils had taken place. Full-time Newbattle students helped out as witnesses and suspects, one even volunteering as the victim - an old boy who met a sticky end, his pockets stuffed with foreign currency, a plane ticket and a very interesting floppy disc ...
"It was the title CSI that grabbed my attention in the course advert in the paper. I like CSI TV programmes because you can pit your skills against the professionals and see if you come up with the right answer. It's about getting your mind going.
"The course content and the fact that it was five hours, once a week, appealed as I'm an at-home mum.
"I've found it really interesting, giving you a taster of forensics and how the judicial system works, looking at real-life crime, DNA testing and so on. The input of Tom Wood as an experienced policeman has been fantastic and fascinating.
"You really get caught up in the content while you're developing lots of skills. It's like learning incidentally.
"You learn research, brain-storming, report writing and you see a project through to the end where we role-play an entire court scene, with Tom playing the procurator fiscal.
"I've enjoyed the involvement, the opportunity and the time to think and analyse. Studying how crime is reported by different types of newspaper was also thought-provoking, how the press use language for effect.
"It's definitely given me more confidence and improved my communication and presentation skills. Newbattle is such a different environment. It's a great place to learn - beautiful, quiet, historical, and meditative. And the atmosphere on the course is informal and relaxing. You learn how you take on information. I'm quite a reflective learner. I digest before coming to conclusions, though I do express my ideas loudly.
"We're a lively mix and some of us are hoping to go on to college together. I hope to start at Jewel and Esk in September and do an HNC in social sciences part-time.
"I didn't expect to get so caught up in the course. But it's so appealing. I've never been bored and always look forward to coming.
"I'm a talking point with the other school mums. At the school gate they call me 'Miss Marple'. Some of them are quite intrigued. I can see them applying to join CSI."