Learned helplessness all round

Following on curiouscat’s response to my post, I’ve been rather taken with the idea of learned helplessness.

This past week I’ve been tied up with validating our new degree programmes: we had our final meetings with the panel and got our approval, subject to some small conditions, and the whole team was rightly very happy.

However, I’ve also been working on some resources for the Higher Education Academy, on using simulations in the social sciences. The brief has been to produce something that anyone, with even the least experience of teaching, can pick up and use.

As you’ll know from our blog, it’s hard enough developing resources on simulations, even for those who are keen to try them out. I won’t rehearse the argument, except to say that the key attraction of simulations – their flexibility – is also the main barrier to entry, since it’s very hard to provide something that is ‘just right’ for any given individual.

With that problem very much in mind, I’ve been trying to work around it. My solution has been two-step.

Firstly, a key part of the resource has been a mix of video clips (with me demonstrating any incredible degree of sartorial elegance) and text, addressing key questions. These cover the big – “why bother using sims? isn’t it a lot of work?” – and the smaller – “what kind of room do I need? how long does it have to be?” points that I have encountered over the years.

Learned helplessness, or supported learned?
Learned helplessness, or supported learned?

The idea here is to be suitably frank about things, rather than just dress it all up and say it will be wonderful. Better to have a realistic sense of what’s involved, than to come out of a bad experience, resolved never to try anything other than a lecture again.

The difficulty is that this does speak to the agenda of learned helplessness: I would hope that the very large majority of colleagues would be able to work out why a simulation might be suitable for them or how to give feedback. Certainly, I won’t pretend that my own practice is informed by much more than lots of exposure to different sims and by personal reflection. While I understand that such resources provide a convenient way into accessing such points, there is nothing that is rocket science (and my counterparts in the space science unit tell me that rocket science itself isn’t actually that tricky).

As such, my second step within such resources has been to flip the questions and problems back on to the viewer/reader. Rather than stating a problem and then resolving it, I have tried to identify it and then suggests ways for the user to resolve it themselves.

Again, this goes back to the initial challenge of sharing resources on simulations. I can’t reasonably create sims for all aspects of political science, let along management, psychology, law and the rest. Indeed, that would be counter-productive. Instead, it is much more a process of trying to open up colleagues’ eyes to the possibilities that simulations offer.

Fine words, but I’m still working through all of this in practice. I’ll let you know how I get on, and I’m sure you’ll let me know if I succeed.

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