Teaching Planning and Policy: a First-Timer’s Perspective

In his book The Skillful Teacher (2006), Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield states: “Teaching is about making some kind of dent in the world so that the world is different than it was before you practiced your craft.  Knowing clearly what kind of dent you want to make in the world means that you must continually ask yourself the most fundamental evaluative questions of all––What effect am I having on students and on their learning?”  Recently, I tried to make a little dent in the urban planning and public policy worlds by serving as a guest lecturer.  Specifically, thanks to Dr. Dan Haverty and Dr. Rob Kent, I had the opportunities to speak at the University of Southern California (USC) and California State University, Northridge (CSUN) over the past few weeks.

Being a soft-spoken introvert, public speaking has always been a challenge for me.  To feel even remotely at ease, I have to spend a great deal of time and effort preparing myself.  One time, I even watched clips from the movie The King’s Speech to find inspiration!  Despite the fears of doing something outside of my comfort zone, I simply felt compelled to give back and decided that I actually wanted to try out guest lecturing.  This is what I learned from my three experiences (twice at USC and once at CSUN) of being a guest lecturer:


Real Projects, Real Stories

Students want to learn about real projects and listen to real stories told by practitioners.  This was obvious based on my own observations and the post-lecture feedback I received from students at both USC and CSUN.  Over the years, I have been fortunate to have gained knowledge and experience in a wide range of planning issues including parks and recreation, land use and zoning, coastal and environmental protection, and housing and community development.  At my very first guest lecture, the highlight for both the students and me was our review and discussion of an actual survey my office used to solicit public input on park and recreation issues in the unincorporated community of Florence-Firestone.  Most appreciated the opportunity to examine a real survey because it helped them understand the thought process involved in putting a survey together, as well as the effectiveness and limitations of the survey.  In another class, I shared about the use of agency records in my office, highlighting the Quimby (parkland dedication) database as an example of information I manage on a daily basis.  Most students found it beneficial to look at an actual “Park Obligation Report” generated from the database and learn more about how a public agency handles and uses records.  In general, students showed a lot of interest in just about any story I shared about my work as a planner and government employee.

Creative Ideas and Visuals

Students love to hear about new or alternative ideas to addressing problems, especially if they are explained clearly and presented visually.  I found this to be true when I gave a presentation entitled “Beyond Parks: Alternative Ways to Meet Recreational Needs” which was based largely on the doctoral project I completed last year.  The alternative ways I discussed included: the joint use of school facilities; the introduction of recreational uses on land owned by utilities; mobile gyms; transportation of residents to outside recreational facilities; and temporary use of parking and vacant lots, reuse of existing buildings, and temporary closure of streets for recreational purposes.  Students showed a lot of enthusiasm and interest in many of these ideas, and found it helpful to learn how these solutions have been implemented in other cities.  Photographs and other visual aids proved to be effective in engaging the audience.  Most agreed with my argument that vision is critical to the implementation of alternative or less conventional ideas.  I also shared a quote by sociologist Frederik Polak which seemed to resonate with many of the students: “the future may well be decided by the images of the future with the greatest power to capture our imaginations and draw us to them, becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Hands-on Learning

Students prefer hands-on learning, such as class exercises, over lengthy lectures.  At my very first guest lecture, I made the rookie mistake of covering a lot of materials contained in the textbook.  I later learned that students are far more interested in learning how they can apply what they have read in the book.  For example, many of my students found it helpful to design their own survey using SurveyMonkey as a class exercise.  This gave them the opportunity to develop their own questions and response choices, and try to avoid the many pitfalls of surveying we discussed in class.  Later on, the students discussed the results of their surveys using charts and other visual displays they created.  This proved to be a very useful activity as the students learned firsthand the challenges of creating, administering, and presenting the findings of a survey.


I believe that planners should contribute to the development of, and respect for, the planning profession by improving knowledge and techniques, helping to solve community problems, and increasing public understanding of planning activities.  In particular, those of us who are certified planners subscribe to the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP)’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, and should be committed to:

  • Sharing the results of experience and research that contribute to the body of planning knowledge;
  • Contributing time and resources to the professional development of students, interns, beginning professionals, and other colleagues;
  • Increasing the opportunities for members of underrepresented groups to become professional planners and help them advance in the profession; and
  • Continuing to enhance our professional education and training.


Guest lecturing is hard work, especially for someone like me, but I certainly had fun doing it the past few weeks.  I have learned a lot from my three guest lectures and hope to have more opportunities in the future to interact with students and make little dents in the urban planning and public policy worlds.  I would also encourage other planners and policy professionals to give guest lecturing or adjunct teaching a try because they have much to offer and students are eager to learn from their real world experiences.


Author’s note: Special thanks to the students at USC and CSUN for completing my post-lecture surveys and giving me valuable feedback on my talks.


Photo credits:

The Skillful Teacher cover from Wiley

Lecture poster prepared by CSUN Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Profile photo of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.