The Change All Around, Part 3

Here is my third post about environmental factors that are affecting my teaching this semester. My previous posts on the subject are here and here. This time I thought I would explore my situation from the standpoint of student behavior.

First item is this screenshot of the Canvas LMS gradebook. I use a grading system in which each assignment is worth a certain number of points, and a student’s final course grade is a function of the total points he or she has earned by the end of the semester. Individual assignments do not receive letter grades and are not graded on a percentage basis with a 0-100 scale.

I inform students — both verbally in the classroom and via text in the syllabus — that the percentage columns in the gradebook are absolutely meaningless in terms of their course grade. Yet they still fixate on these figures, and get dejected whenever they see a number that they perceive as conflicting with their self-image. (I attribute the innumeracy and the construction of a fragile self-identity to parenting and the K-12 education system.) Continue reading

The ABCs of Mentoring

As an increasingly senior (i.e., “older”) faculty member, professional development efforts–whether my own or those intended for others — occupy more of my time and attention than they used to. People here began a more formalized mentoring program for junior faculty about a year ago, and recently I was one of the people called upon to dispense wisdom about teaching to some of our recent hires.

Instead of just talking at them, I decided to demonstrate some teaching via active learning by using Simon’s ABC exercise: I asked the mentees to write down on Post-It notes what they wanted to abandon, begin, and continue about their own teaching and then stick their notes on the wall. Here is a compilation of the results: Continue reading

Enjoyable Cores, Aesthetics, and Narrative

This is part 6 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu. Tomer discussed the ideas presented in this blog series at a Stanford MediaX event.

For this final post of the series, I saved the best for last. And by ‘best’ I mean prettiest.

Kemet: a pretty game set in ancient Egypt.

Kemet is a great game but it has very little educational value. Although set in ancient Egypt and incorporating some Egyptian mythology, the game itself has nothing to do with Egypt but weirdly pits players against each other on a sandy board. Yet Kemet teaches an important lesson because it is absolutely beautiful. Like many of the most successful crowdsourced games, players of Kemet use gorgeous miniatures to move around the board. The pyramids players build while playing Kemet are actually 4-sided dice that are rotated to show each pyramid’s ‘rank’. Continue reading

ISA Creative Teaching Workshops

At the ISA’s annual convention last month, ALPS members led two of the Creative Teaching Workshops organized by Carolyn Shaw of Wichita State University. My colleague Sally Gomaa and I led the Teaching the World Through Authentic Writing Assignments workshop. Here are a few of our thoughts on the experience:

First, we were pleasantly surprised by the diverse crowd. Sally and I met Carolyn, Simon Rofe, and Mary Jane Parmentier in person for the first time and reconnected with some of the ALPS crew. But participants in our workshop took diversity to an entirely different level — graduate students to senior faculty from a variety of academic disciplines, at least eleven different nationalities, and employment or study at a wide range in institutional environments.

This diversity demonstrated the truth that there is no universally-applicable solution to making students learn, whether through writing or any other means. Case in point: in the U.S. system of higher education, I am free to formally assess my students as frequently and in whatever manner I want, which allows me to use writing assignments as a stick to force students to read information that I provide. People who work in other systems don’t have this freedom, and writing exercises might have to be organized as ungraded classroom activities — which assumes students 1) attend class regularly, 2) see value in the activities. Another example: the instructor might not be  teaching in his or her primary language, which complicates the process of evaluating and providing feedback on students’ writing.

A second observation: the standard conference panel is a terrible way to learn about new pedagogical strategies. Its “I talk, you listen” format contradicts nearly every principle of active learning. Our panel, about teaching, was the usual affair with little time for give-and-take with the handful of people in the audience. The contrast with our workshop, where a much larger group of people applied themselves individually and collaboratively, frequently lobbing “What if we tried this?” and “Have you thought about this?” questions at each other, was stark. Nearly all of us teach, and for many if not most of us, teaching occupies the majority of our work time. So why are conferences structured to be mostly irrelevant to the careers of most academics? (Nina, Amanda, and Simon have discussed this subject previously).

Last item, related to the previous one: as is my habit, I did some participant observation while walking the hotel hallways and attending events. I noticed the young, bright-eyed, sharp-dressed graduate students, performing the rituals that they have been led to believe will gain them entry to the professoriate. It made me feel a bit queasy, because for many there will not be a pot of career gold at the end of the graduate school rainbow. The labor market for academics in many fields has collapsed. From my position of privilege as a tenured faculty member, I write about this subject periodically, like Cassandra of Troy. For someone else’s perspective on how the academy in the USA exploits the (sometimes willfully) naive, read Kevin Birmingham’s essay in The Chronicle.

Choice Points, Outcomes and Chance

This is part 5 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

This post is dedicated to what could be the most important game mechanic: decision-making. One of the main challenges in teaching ethics is connecting moral theories to the kinds of decisions that students are likely to face once they graduate. The issue is not merely pedagogical but also substantial: it’s not always clear, or a matter of consensus, what a given theory would instruct us to do in a specific context. Some theorists think that ethical decision-making is not at all a matter of applying the right theory in the right way but a matter of exercising judgement or exhibiting virtue – you can’t know the right thing to do until you’re actually in the situation to make a decision.

Caverna: a family of dwarves specializing in growing wheat and sheep.

If you’re struggling with these issues, game design can help because games are all about making interesting decisions. Games are basically structures for play and what they structure is usually decision-making; the restrictions posed by well-designed games don’t stand in the way of meaningful decision-making but instead facilitate it. You may be inclined to ask your students a lot of open-ended questions, but if the goal of a class is to force students to confront a difficult trade-off in moral values, you are better off with a restricted set of options. This is exactly why so many philosophers construct bizarre and unrealistic thought-experiments to make their arguments, and it is also why students often try to substitute an easier question for the one that forces the difficult trade-off. Game designers recommend thinking about the choice points you give your students. Instead of leaving it up to students to choose whether to exercise moral judgement, create situations that force it. Continue reading

Summer Peace-Building Symposiums

This summer, the International Peace & Security Institute, the Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna Center, and the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology are cooperating on two symposiums that will teach practical skills in peacebuilding. The Bologna symposium focuses on conflict prevention, resolution, and reconciliation, while the Sarajevo symposium is on post-conflict transitions. Additional details are here.

Written and Unwritten Rules

This is part 4 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

I have defined games as systems in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in measurable outcomes. Previously I discussed the artificiality, thinking about drawing students into the magic circle, and the different types of conflict we can build our activities around. Next  we have rules and outcomes will be covered in a future post.

Terra Mystica

Teachers know that it’s very important to give clear instructions for their assignments, though we don’t always spend a lot of time thinking about the best to make sure our students understand the assignments. Board game designers have thought a lot about this. As Rob Daviau, one of the most innovative designers out there, has noted: board games are probably the only form of entertainment that requires you to take a reading comprehension test followed by an oral defense in order to get to the fun. So board game designers are very interested in making sure people don’t tune out before they finish reading the rules. Here’s what they say is important about rules: Continue reading