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


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

Does Active Learning actually work?

I’m continuing my on-going project to find stupid places to write blog-posts, I’m coming to you from 10668m, somewhere over the Austrian Alps, heading to the ECPR’s Joint Sessions in Nicosia.

Once I’m there, I’ve got three full days of discussing whether Active Learning actually works, with a workshop of colleagues from across the EU. Reading through the draft papers makes for much reflection.

And with that in mind, this is a preliminary set of thoughts, which I’ll revisit next week once we’ve had those discussions.

On a personal note, it’s nice to see my various articles being cited, although less positively it’s mostly in the context of how little we know about this subject: too much still rests on the “I tried it and I liked it” approach (to use one colleague’s citation of Chin).

The challenges appear to be three-fold. Continue reading

Limits to public engagement

Surprise! Or surprise?

This week I’m at the PSA annual conference in Cardiff. Aside from getting to catch up with colleagues, there have also been some good discussions in sessions.

One of these was a plenary roundtable on “Bursting Filter Bubbles and Opening Up Echo Chambers: The Role of the Academic in Public Debate”, with speakers talking about how much progress British academics have made – more than in other countries – and all the potential that there is to be utilised: here are my live-tweets.

For me, as someone who spends a lot of time doing this kind of thing, it was great to see this becoming more of a mainstream activity.

However, as the session continued, a niggling doubt crept into the back of my head: is public engagement an unreserved good?

I’d be thinking about how to phrase this, when up popped a more specific instance on my timeline. To be clear, I know neither Leighton nor Morgan, but that’s not really relevant to my niggle.

In the end, I asked if there were any limits to public engagement; things that we shouldn’t be doing. As you’ll see from my thread, we ended up with a bunch of practical tips, rather philosophical considerations. Add to that my desire not to be that guy who ‘asks’ a ‘question’ that turns into a long statement (also it meant I’d get to save it for here), and the matter slid.

My concern is that while it’s wrong that expertise should be seen as irrelevant, that shouldn’t mean that everything ‘experts’ say should be taken as The Truth.

As a simple test of this, think of your academic colleagues and ask yourself whether they’ve ever talked bullshit. I know I have, and so too has pretty much everyone I’ve ever worked with, at some point or other.

That’s not a criticism by the way, just an observation that experts are experts in something.

This came up in an online discussion the other day, when someone complained about a famous TV physicist not understanding the difference between a customs union and the EEA: As I responded: expert in something not expert in something else. You don’t expect me to be able to explain the niceties of Hawking radiation, to flip this around.

But as we reassert the importance of experts there will always be a danger of mission-creep, especially in an area like politics. It’s all too easy to end talking about stuff we don’t really get. It’s easy for me to say no to offers to talk about American politics, when I get them, but less easy to do the same when invited to opine on aspects of British politics beyond Brexit (and sometimes even within Brexit).

And this is the second issue: opinion.

In my current role, I’m bound to be impartial and evidence-led. But I know colleagues with very strong normative positions on the things they research, and media channels that favour stylised clashes of opinion. Both those things make it easy to end up with partisan readings that don’t serve an agenda of expertise as being able interpretation.

You’ll cry foul at this point, because all research is interpretation: and you’d be right. But there are ways and means of communicating that in a transparent manner, most of them not very ‘media-friendly’.

If experts are to make the most of their opportunities then it needs to be done with a degree of self-awareness and self-effacement, separating clearly to those they talk with the split between evidence and interpretation.

That’s a tough ask, and one that I’ve not always got right, but in an age where it’s become all too easy to criticise experts as ‘establishment voices’ and reject them because of who they are, rather than what they say, we have to respond and react. Otherwise our marginalisation will continue and worsen.

More Lego, more production values

Long-standing readers of this blog will know that Lego has been a regular presence in my practice. Whether for creative play or for insights into political theory, it’s a great medium.

Part of my use of it has been in videos. Many years ago, I made a little piece about electoral reform with the help of the university’s comms people, which went down well at the time.

Those very same bricks gave an idea for my work on Brexit, which has now been worked with a professional production company to produce this. The core idea remains the same, namely that the Lego can provide a helpful visualisation of an issue. Continue reading

Simple vs simplistic: Extending TEF

Not much to look at now. Possibly not much to look at later

Paths, once taken, are relatively hard to get away from. Inertia, sunk costs and lack of creativity all play their part in this insight from historical institutionalism.

It’s the case for many areas of life, and education policy is just one of them.

Which brings us to the unfolding of the UK’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Designed to match the more long-standing Research Excellence Framework (REF), TEF was the logical extension of the progressive commodification and marketisation of higher education.

Last year saw the first set of institutional-level results, which I discussed at the time. Now the government has launched the subject-level consultation, which as garnered much interest in the media. Continue reading

Do you need an office?

Apres moi, le deluge…

I’d like to say that this question was prompted by careful reflection over the impact of recent strike action, but actually it’s been triggered by the exciting news over the weekend that my building flooded.

This is even more impressive than it sounds, given that our campus sits on a hill, and my office is on the 5th floor. Some very cold weather, frozen water pipes and a riser have worked to produce some interesting effects that could, in another context, form the basis of a major piece of performance art.

However, beyond this, I find I’m now very rarely in the office in any case. This is the result of my various duties, which see me heading off to different points of the compass on a regular basis, more often than not off-campus.

Apart from the neglect of my plants, I can’t help but feel that not being in the office means I’m loosing something. Continue reading