Collateral damage in the rise of active learning


I finally started teaching again last week, and as usual, I got students on my negotiation course to play the Hobbes game, to get them to reconsider their view of the world.

I do this because it’s a really neat way of highlighting fundamentally different logics of interpersonal relations – competitive versus collaborative – and getting them to start thinking about to handle each other (in a negotiating sense).

Except this time, it didn’t really work.

The usual run of things – in fact, the only run of things in my experience – is that everyone fights each other and there’s only one winner at the end.

But in this instance, about half the group refused to challenge others, only fighting when challenged, and once the challengers had been knocked out there was still about one-third of the class standing.

Now, I’d like to say that this was because somehow our students have developed such a mature sense of their political being that they all divined the cooperative solution to the game. But they didn’t.

They’d just played it before.

In my enthusiasm to share the Hobbes game with colleagues, one of my more IR-inclined colleagues took it back to the roots it had when Victor first made it, back in the nineteenth century.* My colleague played it in her theories course a couple of years ago, to great effect.

And lasting effect too, it seems.

When we discussed it, everyone who’d played before had adopted the cooperative solution, even though it’s no more ‘correct’ than the competitive one.

As a consequence, I was left explained a lot more of the game than I ever previously had. Even though my basic message – other people are a pain in the neck – still held, it was rather differently framed as a result of the game-play.

Now this has little to do with you, except insofar as it raises the broader issue of how we use such activities and games. My experience with this tells me that it’s largely a one-shot exercise: if you play it with a group more than once during their education, you’ll likely skew the result. And if you’ve been sharing your games – as I hope you would – then the chances of a student encountering your work rises.

At the very least it’s something that requires some reflection on your part: how essential is it that students come to this without any prior understanding of your aims? can you adapt your reflection/feedback to such a situation?

I’ll happily admit I was caught totally unawares this time, but now I’m working through all the other stuff I’m planning to see if it’s likely to happen again, and what I can/must do about it.


    • rough guess

One thought on “Collateral damage in the rise of active learning

  1. From what you write, it feels like you were surprised and deluded by the result. But actually, it may have been a boon to explain something that wouldn’t have been as clear if all players had done it for the first time.
    People learn from past experiences. And countries too. In Europe, it took 2 world wars and their destructions (especially the destruction of the 2nd WW) before countries decided that a cooperative approach to challenges was better.
    Ask your students (maybe you’ve already done so, buti t could be a guide for those who haven’t faced this situation before): what did you do the first time? Which approach did you choose? Did those who never played before instinctively play competitive or did someone play cooperative? Why (they look at what others did?) How does this relate to countries’ desire to build cooperations (EU, NATO…)?
    What would it take for players who have already played to change their posture from cooperative to competitive again? Forgetting the past lessons? Remember them “Those who don’t remember history are cursed to repeat it”. Look at populism/nationalism now as examples.
    And so on.
    My suggestion is: use the new results as a way to teach them how countries/people change their views due to experience – and the need to remember that experience. And how that influences decision making regarding relations with neighbors. In negotiating terms, their BATNA changes, because experience taught them the cost of confrontation.
    In other words, when you play a game, remember that they may have played it too, and think beforehand at the opportunities it gives you to convey them some additional messages/insight

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