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.

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…

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.

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.

Countdown to Prague

“The learning gains might be this big. But then again, maybe not”

My diary tells me that today I’m uploading materials to the EuroTLC website, in anticipation of the third conference at the end of the month.

EuroTLC is something we’ve written about before (here), but it’s worth revisiting how it differs from APSA’s TLC, which had been something of an inspiration.

While TLC has kept a rather academic bent to its work – streamed workshops focusing on papers – EuroTLC has been more interested in applied approaches: how to do stuff in the classroom. That’s evident in the structures – lots of practical sessions and a variety of formats – and in the general collective model of lots of different organisations chipping in.

Of course, there’s the practical necessity that being able to get together enough papers to run a TLC-style event is very difficult, and indeed rather redundant, given the existence of TLC itself. There’s never been a desire to cannibalise TLC, but rather to fill a gap that was felt to exist in the market.

But how does this all matter?

Well, building on the work I’ve been doing in Nicosia, EuroTLC is a good moment to advance that agenda.Some of the Joint Session participants will be there too, so it’s an obvious jumping-off point to get some more buy-in from colleagues.

And here the nature of EuroTLC becomes more relevant. If participants are more interested in ‘doing stuff in the classroom’ than in research per se, how to make the connection.

Of course, this is a slightly moot point, since I’m aware that the two things aren’t mutually exclusive and – more to the point – that interest in one often co-exists with the other. I want to do better and more useful things in my classroom, so I’m interested in what constitutes ‘better’ or ‘more useful’.

At the same time, I know from past EuroTLCs that playfulness is not always easily aligned with rigorous. The opportunity to try out new pedagogic things is a joy in itself – the moment of thinking “why did no one ever try this before?” – but it’s not the same as attempting to apply a methodical and dispassionate analysis. Put bluntly, sometimes it’s just enough to be trying something new.

But this is rather why Peter and I set up our Cypriot workshop in the first place: neophilism isn’t enough. And that’s not even getting to the dull fact that most things have been tried before; it’s just that we didn’t know about them. Which is the point.

I’m all for exploring what we do, but that doesn’t have to be without a map. Indeed, a map might point us to new (for us) things that actually work.

Talking with participants at other EuroTLCs (and TLC, for that matter) I often encounter the sentiment – usually the next day – of “well, it was fun, but was it any good?”

That’s the moment to connect the different elements.

Now I just need to loiter around hotel lobbies and airport departure lounges to buttonhole people.

You’ve been warned.

Some more pop culture ethics

I’m pleased to report that even after a gap of several years, I still recently managed to destroy a colleague’s enjoyment of The Lego Movie by pointing out its representation of fascism, including the Newspeak of “everything is awesome.”

Such found objects are valuable, not simply as a way of robbing the joy from quality time with the kids, but also a way into discussing complex political issues.

This resurfaced for me once again, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there was a very interesting piece on the morality of superheroes, which built on the emerging questioning within the Hollywood system of whether masked individuals meting out extra-judicial ‘justice’ might not be quite the unmitigated good it once was portrayed as.

(And yes, I know that graphic novels got to this a long time ago, but we’re talking here about a form that a lot more people consume.)

The second was the consequence of being left home alone and watching The Hitman’s Bodyguard (THB), which I shall not review beyond noting a key piece of action occurs in Coventry.

It’s a classic odd-couple buddy movie, with many wisecracks and location scenery, and for that it’s very run-of-the-mill.

However, the story turns on genocide and responsibilities to act (in various ways). There’s a bunch of ethics thrown in, although not enough that anyone seems to notice the jarring effort of key characters laughing about ‘ass’ as they walk through the scene of a bombing.

All of which suggests that there might be two levels of discussion one could have with students about the issues involved.

At the obvious level, there’s the ethics as promoted by the film(s) you discuss. In the case of THB, there’s a tension between natural and judicial justice, as well as between means and ends. There’s even an element of the balance between structure and agency, in the discussion about life-partners, that might open up some useful lines of debate.

As the article notes, such overt discussion of the great responsibilities of great power is becoming more common in superhero movies, which might be a reflection of producers’ increased confidence in what audiences can handle, or might simply be because just fighting people eventually runs out of steam at some point. But the consequence is that ethics, even if it is ethics-by-numbers, is there on the screen to be considered. And if you have a class that’s still getting to grips with the basics, then this is as good a way in as any.

But there’s also the less-obvious layer of discussion: the kind of stuff that’s either not mentioned or not even obviously considered by the movie’s makers.

To take an obvious example, THB isn’t about gender, but it’s also about gender. That’s clear from the gendering of roles, the rescuing of women and the occasional knob joke. I’m guessing it’s not what the director wanted me to think about, as I watched, and I’m also guessing it’s not what the director thought very much about either, but that’s precisely the point. Such dimensions get woven into the fabric of a cultural product, and it is for us to notice and unpick those.

Culture invites multiple readings, and so let’s try doing just that. Wikipedia tells me THB got ‘mixed reviews’, and I can believe that: any film that portrays such a lax depiction of border controls deserves to be challenged.

Happy viewing…

Building a grid for measuring the effect of Active Learning

The great thing about colleagues is the way that they get you to move beyond yourself. Reading Peter’s summary of our Nicosia discussion is a case in point, setting out our agenda in a way that makes me want to write more about the ideas involved.

That means the dream I had last night about how to run my negotiating course will have to wait until next week, for which we might all be graeful.

At the centre of Peter’s idea is the creation of a framework that would allow colleagues to engage in a more systematic and rigorous examination of the effects of Active Learning. In so doing, it plots a middle path through the challenges I set out before.

On the one hand, a framework can be too vague, offering no real purchase on the issues involved, nor a mechanism for comparison of individual pieces of research, even if it would have the benefit of flexibility.

On the other, prescription might guide the work much better, but at the risk of missing out important elements. And that’s after the long, hard struggle to agree such a detailed model in the first place.

The compromise approach suggested by our discussions is to divide the big question of ‘what effects?’ along three discrete and meaningful dimensions.

The first is to unpack ‘Active Learning’. Our workshop alone contained simulations, creation of videos, semi-structured facilitated group discussion, problem-based learning and more: each rather different, each brought together by not much more than the placing of the student in the centre of the learning activity.

Indeed, much of my informal conversation in Nicosia was precisely about what makes Active Learning, Active Learning. Given the range, it’s difficult to come up with a definition that includes the kind of range listed above, but excludes something like a lecture. And there’s a question about whether lectures should be excluded in any case: colleagues using EVS might feel that they’re doing Active Learning.

And no, I didn’t get to an answer on this one. There’s maybe something in thinking about learning as being about stimulus-response, with active learning focused more on the response element, but by that point I was feeling that I was hopelessly out of my depth and in need of an educational scientist with some emergency theory.

Digressions aside, this dimension logically matters: the type of thing you do in your learning environment should influence what students learn from it. By differentiating across the variety, we might be able to spot commonalities and differences, especially as it doesn’t a priori exclude consideration of the effect of non-Active Learning situations too, as a benchmark.

Which leads to the second dimension of types of effect.

Here again, much discussion ensued in Nicosia about what types of effect to consider and how to group them. As I’ve discussed already, Bloom’s tripartite cognitive-affective-psychomotor domaining forms an obvious starting point, even if you can have a discussion about whether something like self-confidence is a skill or a disposition or something else.

However you resolve this one, there are still the three main areas of ‘facts’, skills and attitudes. Clearly one can break each of these down into more specific elements, and consider interactions between each of them – if my students enjoy it more, do they learn more facts? – but this does at least begin to structure the range of what we might consider.

The third dimension – of context – is somewhat different, since it’s not about the activity per se, but rather the environment in which Active Learning takes place. Several of our papers dealt with school children rather than university students, posing a question of whether this made any fundamental difference.

My personal experience makes me think that it is more a difference of degree than kind: the high levels of confidence and knowledge allow university students to take simulation scenarios further than school pupils, in terms of depth, realism and reflection. However, others find rather different dynamics, which suggest that differentiation across this might hold value.

Again, we come back to the impact of types of Active Learning and to the scope and magnitude of effects.

And this might be the biggest challenge: measurement.

Peter didn’t try to specific minimum or common standards for measuring effects, in part because of the scale and scope indicated by the three dimensions. However, we have to hope that as we start to work on this, we might all develop a better sense of what works how: to take the obvious example, some techniques will work better than others for different effects.

So, a plan. And a grid.

On to the next step.

An Active Learning shopping list

This guest post comes from Peter Bursens, University of Antwerp.

In a previous post Simon referred to the lavish Cypriot mezze as a metaphor for the discussions during our ECPR workshop on active learning. There is indeed a lot on our plate when it comes to elaborating a systematic research agenda on the effects of active learning. Thanks to the participants we now have at least a shopping list to purchase the necessary ingredients.

The primary aim of the workshop was to go beyond descriptions and good practices of active learning tools in political science. Participants were invited to collect empirical data from their active learning environment and apply appropriate methods to explore the effects on learning outcomes.

We identified five parameters to situate the papers of the workshop: the dependent variable, the independent and intervening variables, methods, data and context.

The dependent variable refers to the different types of learning outcomes. Knowledge, skills and attitudes were often used as broad categories, although these concepts were defined differently according to the theories used (cognitive, affective and regulative outcomes or cognitive, emotional and behavioural outcomes, to name just two). Other more concrete outcome variables included interest, motivation and self-efficacy. Yet other papers measured effects on civic engagement or even on the motivation to study political science in higher education.

The independent variables often referred to students’ disposition such as gender, age, previous education, previous experience social capital and others. As intervening variables the papers looked at a variety of active learning instruments. Most papers dealt with different types of simulations and role play games, but others used movies, ICT tools, learning approaches such as problem based learning, and video production.

Papers applied a wide variety of methods: some used (advanced) quantitative statistics, others pre- and post-test while some used qualitative tools such as discussion groups, interviews, observations or even diaries. Often the choice of the method followed the ontological positions of the researcher as most were positivist and some were constructivist minded.

Data varied according to the methods. Survey data were most common, although some papers had response or sample issues. Most papers relied on self-reporting, while objective and observational data were more rare. Datasets had a range from a few hundreds to just four students.

Finally, the context varied as well. Higher education students (but different types of programmes and courses, and also extra curricular events) were the most popular. Some also look at the secondary school pupils.

Of course, the workshop only addressed a small number of the potential questions to be asked regarding the effect of active learning environments. Nevertheless, from the workshop, a three-dimensional projection could be derived that can help the political science community to define the puzzles of a future research agenda. A typical research question for a paper within this agenda would be what effect does active learning environment X in context Y have on learning outcome Z. A final observation regarding the research agenda is that political science would benefit from the theories and methods from educational science.

Conclusion? A lot to digest for the workshop participants. More guests at the table would be warmly welcomed!

Nostimo fagito!

Sticking it to STEM: getting school kids into Politics

Meh

This guest post is by Karen Heard-Lauréote, Reader in European Politics at the University of Portsmouth.

My STEM-based colleagues are always going out to “feeder” schools and blowing stuff up (in contained experiments of course), conducting maths magic and playing with Meccano to design crazy structures in an effort to encourage pupils (especially) girls to consider studying one of their subjects at University. And there’s a lot of money sloshing around in the STEM subject promotion kitty to do this.

In the humanities and social sciences we have far-less spectacular tricks up our sleeve to boost interest amongst school pupils in our disciplines and engage them to aspire to apply for one of our courses. Let’s be honest – taster lectures are about as innovative as it sometimes gets when us political scientists do school outreach.

In a climate of decline in humanities and social sciences recruitment and funding, and in a context of widening participation in HE, the time has perhaps come to join our STEM colleagues and put a few fireworks into our own outreach activities.

And so as a keen advocate of active learning in my university-based UG and PG-level pedagogy I thought about using EU political decision-making simulations as an outreach tool in schools. School funding for careers activities and support has hugely reduced in recent years and it turns out that schools are only too willing to get local HE providers in to do such activities – particularly in the last week of term when the teaching staff are exhausted!

The idea is simple. We developed a crisis-meeting scenario which had sufficient verisimilitude to a real phenomenon (in our case the Calais refugee crisis) but reduced the complexity of the decision-making process and took some liberties with the “facts” to make the scenario manageable to simulate in 3 hours and as close to the pupils’ own experience as possible (swapping Calais with Cherbourg, which has a direct ferry route to Portsmouth).

We developed role cards with actors ranging from the CEO of Brittany Ferries, local Council and City leaders, local MPs and local NGO and business groups and went into the school a week before the simulation to assign roles and instruct pupils on how to prepare. A week later we came back and ran the simulation.

It was a hoot!

We saw pupils fully assimilate and inhabit their roles – a few so retrenched in the arguments of their character that they surprised both themselves and their teachers with their enthusiasm for negotiation, problem-solving, diplomacy and use of political rhetoric to persuade others. Political science as a field of study that may have previously been perceived by school pupils as abstract, dry and serious, suddenly came alive, attractive and exciting in the context of the simulation.

So apart from being a great deal of fun, what does this kind of activity tell us about active learning? The results of a pre- and post-event pupil questionnaire showed us three main effects of simulations used in this context.

First, the simulations increased the participants’ interest in pursuing university degrees in fields cognate to EU politics. As such simulations boosted interest in pupils in studying social sciences at University thus raising aspirations and most interestingly, it boosted, more specifically, their interest in studying political science and IR (where many of them placed European politics – but that’s another debate) as University subjects.

Second, the simulations increased the participants’ self-assessed knowledge of EU politics.

Third, the simulations increased the importance participants placed on understanding the workings of the EU.

Taken together, these findings support our claim that EU-related simulations may be used as outreach tools to increase interest in pursuing EU-related subjects at university level.

We may not have safety goggles, Bunsen burners, medical instruments, Meccano sets and the other paraphernalia associated with STEM subjects in humanities and social sciences to wow and amaze school children, but we do have powerful ideas and debates which, with a little nurturing of contacts in schools, we can explore in a fun way through the use of active learning techniques.

Simulations as an outreach tool to boost general interest in HE participation and specific Interest in European politics could be worth a try.

A Nicosian agenda for active learning

So I’m back from Cyprus, land of exceptionally large (and delicious) meals. And the mezze is probably a good metaphor for our ECPR workshop on active learning: lots of tasty and interesting things, but also a lot to digest. It’s fair to say that over the four days of discussion we made some progress, but also came to acknowledge that some substantial barriers stand in our way.

So take this as a first cut (or a second one, if you’re going to be picky).

As I noted in my previous post, our common goal for the workshop was to develop a better understanding of whether and how active learning works.

Our papers – from colleagues across Europe – provided just the kind of starting point that we needed, from simulations to stimulate school pupils’ interest in university to students making their own videos.

From that we’ve got three groups now working on pulling together symposia/special issues to showcase that evidence. Right now we’re pulling together some text to frame each of these, but we’ll be coming out to you – via this platform and at various L&T events in the coming months – to see if you have work that might fit in too.

With that in mind, it’s useful to sketch out the three projects right now. Continue reading