Changing a Course on Development, Part 3

As a follow-up to Part 2 in this series, here are specific examples of how culling learning objectives and readings led to better alignment with assignments.

My old version of the course included the topics of poverty, aid, economic growth,  economic geography, corruption, and ethnic conflict. For the new version, I abandoned the last three of these as learning objectives. This allowed me to discard corresponding chapters from William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest For Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (MIT Press, 2001), plus other, shorter readings.

The old course had content organized under headings like “economic institutions” and “economic behavior.” While I am intricately familiar with these terms, students are not. As learning objectives, they are too broad. “Barriers to entrepreneurship” is more useful. As I mentioned in Part 2, students will see each of these objectives as a meta-prompts for reading responses, which are also now more specific. For example, in the portion of the syllabus where I am still using Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (Public Affairs, 2011):

Old assignment A

Why don’t the poor create their own microfinance institutions, instead of “waiting” for outsiders to do it for them?

New assignment A

Purpose of this response: learn about the role of insurance in mitigating economic risk.

  • Bannerjee and Duflo, Ch. 6, p. 133-156.
  • Gardiner Harris, “Borrowed Time on Disappearing Land,” New York Times, 28 March 2014.
  • Brooke Jarvis, “When Rising Seas Transform Risk Into Certainty,” The New York Times, 18 April 2017.

Can insurance help Bangladeshis minimize economic risk? Why? What about people living in Norfolk and Houston? Why?

Old assignment B

  • Bannerjee and Duflo, Ch. 10 and Conclusion, p. 235-274.

Is the pessimism of the Acemoglu and Robinson development model correct? Why?

New assignment B

Purpose of this response: learn about the effectiveness of public policy in a changing natural environment.

  • Bannerjee and Duflo, Ch. 10 and Conclusion.
  • Richard Conniff, “The Vanishing Nile: A Great River Faces a Multitude of Threats,” Yale Environment 360, 6 April 2017.
  • Community Water Solutions, “Empowering Women Entrepreneurs to End the World Water Crisis,” 5 April 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zUBOLzfrQo.

Will small, decentralized, community-based changes lead to large-scale sustainable economic development? Why?

The simplicity-complexity dilemma

Having been all chuffed with how my EU simulation was received in Prague at EuroTLC, I read Patricia’s post about using doughnuts to model a two-level game with a mixture of admiration and jealousy.

The admiration comes from the elegance of its design and jealousy from the feeling that I’d not come up with something nearly as good.

So, props to Patricia (and hello to my local doughnut vendor), but it also raises an interesting question that was niggling me in Prague and which has been a long-running debate here on ALPSblog, namely the tension between making something ‘realistic’ and drawing out the essence of a situation.

It’s a generic problem for all teaching and learning: we can’t (or shouldn’t) hope to describe and explain every last thing in the world around us, so we use heuristics of theory and extrapolation to provide ‘good enough’ models.

Similarly, when building simulations or games, we’re trying to draw out the key processes and dynamics, to expose them for students to see them more clearly and to then take them back to the building of their understanding of the world.

The difficulty comes, of course, in deciding what’s important and what’s not.

The great strength of Patricia’s exercise is that it’s all about the two-level game: it’s lean on its specificity to doughnuts, so it can be used to illustrate any two-level game.

My game is much less lean (and doesn’t provide any tasty pay-offs), but it does include some other mechanisms that I consider important for my students’ understanding, namely the role of outside parties, the consequences of particular choice and the potential to challenge the entire premise of the activity.

Neither is ‘right’ in its approach, but each stresses different aspects.

To make the point, my session in Prague largely consisted of participants talking about what else they/one could add in to do other stuff. Again, not right or wrong, but different emphases.

These things can potentially be crippling, to both designer and user.

For the designer, the fear of missing something out can mean throwing in too much, especially if you’re relatively new to the process. To takes a degree of courage to stripe things right back to one thing and to accept that it doesn’t do it all.

For the user, the anxiety that you’re not hitting all (or enough) of your learning outcomes might mean a desire to shovel more into a scenario, or to feel you have to play multiple activities, or even to drop them all and stick with the lecture.

The key to unlocking all these is to talk with students. It might not have been the first point you picked up from Patricia’s post, but the post-game debrief is essential: getting students to talk through what they’ve done and then to connect it to the rest of their learning.

It’s here that the process of essentialisation actually becomes a positive help: asking what was and wasn’t realistic about what they did can open up big areas of discussion and debate and invites thoughtful consideration about what else is happening in a given scenario.

Put differently, not trying to do it all helps to point up the things you’re not trying to do.

My core rule in designing activities has long been KISS: keep it simple, stupid. If I can’t be clear about what I intend the activity to do, then I can’t expect anyone else to be clear.

Indeed, by seeking out that core process, I’m also trying to make sense of a phenomenon: to see my students then play that out also helps me to see if my sense is a useful or instructive one.

If you like, this is another example of the value of gaps: rather than trying to do it all for students, by leaving things open we can encourage them to think and develop for themselves. Which is rather the point.

The Doughnut Negotiation: Win-Sets with Sprinkles

Today we have a guest post from Dr. Patricia Blocksome, Assistant Professor of Social Science, US Army School of Advanced Military Studies. She can be reached via her LinkedIn profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/pblocksome/.

 

Putnam argues that international negotiations between states occur simultaneously with domestic negotiations between intrastate coalitions – the two-level game. At the domestic level, politicians have to form coalitions large enough to ratify an international agreement. These domestic coalitions establish the win-set, the spectrum of acceptable outcomes for the state. At the international level, each state attempts to achieve an agreement that falls within its domestic win-set. When states have overlapping domestic win-sets, an international agreement is possible. Negotiations can occur concurrently over two or more different issues, leading to potential trade-offs, where a gain in one area can offset a loss in another.

So how does this apply to doughnuts? Continue reading

In theory I can drive a small lorry…

Almost exactly like this

Of the many things I imagined I would get from EuroTLC, I never imagined that would include the discovery that I’ve been legally able to drive a small lorry for the past quarter of a century.

That conversation sprang out of a sharing of national identity papers in the beer hall – yes, we do know how to have fun – which ultimately resulted in me turning over my driving licence to find all the many categories of vehicle I am allowed to drive.

And that’s a good metaphor for one of the bigger themes of the conference for me: getting from theory to practice.

Despite having a bit of plastic that permits me to do these things, I’ve never actually tried to do them. Quite aside from the questions this raises about how driving tests worked in Buckinghamshire in the early 1990s, it also points to the difficulty of turning abstraction into practicality.

As a couple of colleagues noted during the event, we have two bodies of literature that don’t really speak to each other.

On the one hand, we have the ‘show-and-tell’ pieces, where individuals talk through what they have done in their class: very specific, very introspective, but also actual practice.

On the other, we have the pedagogic literature of high theory on learning: very generic, very wide in potential application, but without operationalisation.

The gap comes in translating the latter into the former, and vice-versa. It’s all very well to know about Bloom’s taxonomy, but try to apply it to your practice and it’s a different kettle of fish: everything in the class can be anything in the taxonomy, depending on an arbitrary classification by yourself.

Similarly, while it’s good to know what someone’s done in their class, it’s more useful to have a more abstracted model that can be adapted more simply to your specific needs.

At EuroTLC we did try to bridge that gap. People presented not papers but workshops where participants got to have a more hands-on approach and opportunities to discuss underlying mechanisms. In the coming weeks, we’ll be bringing you several of those ideas in guest posts.

But still the issue remains.

Part of the solution might come in the form of different materials and activities. Over the conference we talked about various event formats and resource provision to try and address such problems: none of them quite hit the nail on the head, but the process itself was a productive one and something that I’ll be returning to in coming posts.

Now I’m off to clear my head with a refreshing drive in my new minibus…

Changing a Course on Development, Part 2

Back in February, I wrote about using the question “What don’t students need?” to help me redesign my course on economic development — a guiding principle that is very different from “What do I like to teach?”

This last question got me thinking about my history with the subject and how that has affected my preferences when teaching it. I can thank Dr. William Joseph for first introducing me to the political economy of Third World development in an undergraduate course that I took decades ago at Wellesley College. His course sparked an interest that would eventually become the foundation of my academic career. At the time, the field was transitioning away from the binary lenses of modernization theory and post-colonial thought and toward new institutional economics. A standard syllabus would begin with Western imperialism, progress through post-independence struggles in a global capitalist order, and end with the success stories of newly-industrialized states in East Asia. There would be some discussion of international financial institutions — the IMF and World Bank — along the way.

For today’s War on Terror generation, decolonization, the Green Revolution, and Japan’s post-World War II industrialization are ancient history. These topics are both relevant and fascinating for a historically-minded person like me, but I only have fourteen weeks in the semester and my students will probably never take another course on economic development.

I culled the reading list a second time while trying to keep the above in mind, and more readings went into the rubbish bin. In the process I created some parsimonious alignment between learning objectives and writing assignments, which in turn led to an easy set of meta-prompts to preface those assignments. Each meta-prompt begins with “Purpose of this response: learn about . . . ” and ends with the specific learning objective that the assignment targets. Here is the list of those objectives:

  • The nature of poverty and perceptions of the poor.
  • Foreign aid.
  • Demographics and carrying capacity.
  • Causes of economic growth.
  • The role of agriculture in development.
  • Human capital.
  • The management of market externalities.
  • Effects of and barriers to savings, credit, insurance, and entrepreneurship for the poor.
  • The relationship between property regimes and natural resource management.
  • The socioeconomic consequences of urban development policies.
  • The effectiveness of public policy in a changing natural environment.

I’ll be posting more about redesigning this course in the coming weeks.

Contingencies and contingency

Maybe not the best choice, given how that one pans out, but you get the idea

Reading Chad’s post reminds me – as if it were needed – that we operate in increasingly contingent times: there’s very little that is secure and dependably reliable.

That’s true of student enrolments, central financing and even the structure of the subject matter we study. Everything’s in flux, all the time.

This was driven home for me by a meeting I attended this week in Northern Ireland of the British and the Irish political studies associations, where we were talking about how Brexit is challenging us on a number of different levels.

Of these, the question of how to teach Brexit looked quite prosaic and manageable (as we’ve discussed previously here), certainly compared to big challenges like institutionalising the new interactions with practitioners that Brexit has created, or changing the way the academy sees impact.

Those discussions are on-going and I’ll come back to them at another point when they have moved on some more. In the meantime I want to think about resilience.

As you doubtless know, one of the worst things about contingent situations is the draining nature of the uncertainty: to spend you whole time wondering/worrying about what is happening (or might be about to happen) is just plain tiring. It’s hard to lift your head to a brighter future when you’re knee-deep in whatever unpleasantness you find yourself in.

A central part of coping with that is to recognise that you’re not alone.

Much as it’s terrible that colleagues face the same kind of challenges that you do, it should also be a source of strength. As the old saw has it, a problem shared, is a problem halved. By being able to talk with others about these things we get not simply to off-load it all, but also to find someone who can help to manage and relativise it.

If nothing else, to find that you don’t have to face this all alone can be a comfort, even if it can’t resolve matters. If we draw an analogy from our professional paradigms, we make better and more sound advances by sharing and trialing what we do. Likewise, by sharing and working together, we might find ways to better address our situations.

Certainly, I can attest that it has been the support of colleagues on both big and small issues that I have found most comforting and helpful in my career.

To take the most obvious example, this blog and the network of people associated with it has been a central part of my developing practice as an educator and as a public communicator. It’s also been a huge source of help and support for issues that go well beyond the particular remit of what we nominally do.

Life can be tough, and our professional lives increasingly so, but that should only strengthen our mutual bonds. If nothing else, it’s one of the things that remains largely under our own control: in the seas of structure, there are still islands of agency.

We should make the most of them.

Back End Skills

Most ALPS posts deal with the front end of teaching — the stuff that eventually turns into the student experience. Today I’m going to talk about the back end of the job: skills that are beneficial for one’s career because they have applications far beyond the classroom environment. Here are the skills that I now wish I had acquired while in graduate school:

Writing for the Audience

As I’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, the vast majority of academic writing is terrible. It is produced to be published, not to be read. Important ideas are not communicated well, if at all. For example, compare the writing of Anatol Lieven in Pakistan: A Hard Country to any journal article or multi-authored volume about that country. Or read Sarah Kendzior‘s The View From Flyover Country. These people can write well, a lot of people read what they write, and they have benefited professionally as a result.

Academics need to reach different audiences, and that requires learning how to write for those audiences. Take courses in journalistic or creative writing. Write memos. Submit op-eds to your local newspaper. Get feedback from people who write better than you do. Write a lot, even though it takes time. Use the process of writing as a tool to refine your thinking. Practice what we preach to students.

Graphic and Web Design

I’ve written about this before too — messages can and often should be communicated visually. But the message is lost if the visuals are bad. I’m often shocked by the inability of faculty members to display information in a manner that is easy to understand — whether for other academics or a curious and reasonably intelligent public. Creating simple but effective charts with Excel is not that difficult. Yet training in this basic skill was not part of my graduate program — I had to learn it on my own. Others probably never bothered.

My doctoral studies began just before the Web sprang into existence. Since then, I’ve been struggling to catch up with the digital revolution. This blog is one small tangible result. Don’t be left behind like I was — learn how to build websites. The more proficient at this you become, the more of an advantage you will have.

Data Literacy

Related to the above is the ability to work with data. Can you easily mine data by creating longitudinal analyses and calculating percentages? Do you know how to determine whether your data and conclusions are meaningful?  I am constantly amazed by what I can learn and communicate by making those simple Excel charts. I dream about what I could do if I knew R.

Stage Presence

Let’s face it: teaching is performance. As are committee meetings, admissions office recruitment events, and board meetings. Elocution and body language can make or break a conference presentation. Don’t be the person whom everyone immediately tunes out. Take a course in public speaking, acting, or musical theater.

People Management

We have to interact with others as part of larger organizations, and I bet every person who reads this has encountered at least one toxic colleague in their careers. Some of us end up with managerial duties, as research team leaders, department chairs, and administrators, yet we’ve never been trained for these roles. I recently attended a workshop on how to manage difficult conversations in the office, and it was eye-opening. Find out how you can become better at working with people. Then do it.

Look At Those Deck Chairs

I am going to return to beating one of my favorite dead horses — systemic change in higher education — partly because I just completed three days’ worth of commencement-related events at a university with a total full-time enrollment of only 2,500 students. This post is a preview of something that is already under review for publication in another venue, so I won’t go into my usual excruciating level of detail.

I remain convinced that we are in the early stages of a massive, decades-long consolidation of post-secondary educational institutions in the USA. The consolidation will hit small, private, non-profit colleges and universities first. Here are the basic indicators:

  • A population that is aging out of the labor force combined with low unemployment rates means fewer young people interested in attending college.
  • Continuing demographic decrease in the number of high school graduates in New England and the Midwest.
  • Expanding economic inequality will make the traditional four-year, full-time, residential undergraduate experience, with its high overhead costs, increasingly unaffordable for a greater number of high school graduates. Even those with sufficiently affluent socioeconomic backgrounds will seek out colleges and academic programs that are perceived as providing higher value-added and a better return on investment.
  • As of Fall 2015, there were at least 600 private, non-profit bachelor’s and master’s degree-granting institutions with less than 2,500 students. How many of these colleges can you name? You just proved my point. The vast majority of them have undistinguished reputations, are heavily tuition-dependent, and lack the resources that are available to students at larger institutions. These small colleges and universities will be the first to be crippled by falling demand.

Marian Court, Burlington, St. Joseph’s, Wheelock, Concordia Alabama, Atlantic Union, Mount Ida, Marylhurst, and Bacone represent just the tip of the iceberg.

Sharing materials, shaping ideas

Let’s hope not, right?

While trying not to let the great ideas of Nicosia slip off my radar, I’ve got to admit to being rather excited about Prague and EuroTLC.

As I discussed last week, EuroTLC is a more applied event, which is why I’m looking forward to getting my hands metaphorically dirty: a semester with no teaching is good for many things, but not for developing one’s learning & teaching practice.

As part of EuroTLC, we’re being encouraged to share materials beforehand. You can find my stuff in Best Practice Workshop (Session B) if you’re interested.

Once again, this raises the question of how to share and what to share in pedagogic materials. While we often note here how generous people are with their teaching ideas it’s just as frequently that we note that we’re not sure what’s the necessary minimum to impart.

To take my case, the materials I’ve uploaded should be enough to play the game: the pack that goes to the students and some notes: the calculator is more a reflection of my getting bored with the discussions about the role of maths in social science education than any essential part of gameplay.

But I can also see that the face-to-face element of my presentation is going to be important too, because it’ll point out the areas where my paperwork isn’t up to scratch and, more importantly, how this game could be re-purposed.

Of course, that latter issue is of as much interest to me as it is to the person asking: I see in it all what I want to see, but I’m also keen to discover what others see.

This is not merely an academic consideration, but a more practical one for me, driven by a new project I’m working on this year.

Working with Oxford University Press, colleagues and I are building an online platform to consolidate and integrate existing outputs from the publishers, with a mix of text, blogs and – you’ve guessed it – activities.

The game I’m presenting in Prague is also going – potentially – going to become part of this resource, but in a rather different format. That format change is driven by both the use – individuals, via a website – and the need to protect IP – so no downloadable PDFs to share with your mates.

Re-imagining this game for that very different environment means having a strong sense of how it works and what it’s trying to do. Already that’s meant some long discussions with co-authors, editors and the tech bods to work our the parameters. If I’m not able to understand my game’s essence, then I can’t very well expect a coder to create an appropriate version for the website.

It’s with all this in mind that I’m heading Prague, thinking about how these things can and might work.

Additional Snippets from Comparative Politics

A few more quick thoughts about my comparative politics course, which just ended . . .

On the last day of class, I distributed pieces of paper and asked students to write down what they thought were the two best and two worst assigned readings, and to include brief explanations of their choices. Nine students were in the room — out a class of ten. Despite such a small sample, I will go out on a limb and draw some conclusions, all of which relate to transparency:

  • I should preface each writing assignment with a very brief overview of how assigned readings relate to the topic at hand, because students don’t automatically know this. For the question “Does Chinese culture promote authoritarianism?” the class read an interview with Singapore’s former leader Lee Kuan Yew. Two of the students didn’t understand that Yew, being of Chinese ancestry like many other Singaporeans, was discussing his views on Chinese cultural norms.
  • I should also explicitly inform students that readings are written in different styles for different audiences, which means that some of the readings will be more difficult and less enjoyable to read than others. For example, in the section of the course on revolution, I assign Theda Skocpol’s 1976 article “France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions.” Two students said this article was a least favorite reading, because of its style. Oddly, in my opinion, a few other students complained that the long-form journalism found in some of The New York Times articles was hard to understand.
  • Students have difficulty placing unfamiliar historical events in chronological order and parsing out how what happened before might have affected what happened after (the “history just happens” mentality). For an assignment about Iran, students felt confused about the relationship between the 1979 revolution, popular support for the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic, and more recent anti-government protests. While I find it easy to connect the dots, students don’t — for them, context can be confusing. So for some assignments I need to narrow down the reading list.

After students finished identifying readings they liked or disliked, I asked them if they would have preferred formal mid-term and final exams, or regular quizzes, as an alternative to some of the writing assignments. I was surprised that they said no, since I had been under the impression that they used test scores to reassure themselves of their performance. One senior said that he didn’t remember a thing from test-based courses he had taken, while he remembered a lot from writing-based courses, and therefore he regarded the latter as much more beneficial. Two others said that, as studies have shown, they and their friends promptly forgot whatever facts they dumped into short-term memory the night before an exam, so they regarded exams as anxiety-producing events irrelevant to their learning. If next year I use quizzes as a stick to improve attendance in class, they will probably need to be the “write a paragraph that answers the question” type.