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

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

ISA 2018 San Francisco Report

I’m just back from the International Studies Association’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco, and it was a pedagogy bonanza! Great attendance at the pedagogy panels (even those held at off-times) and excellent discussion all around. One thing I love about us pedagogy types is a commitment to leaving plenty of time for Q&A and discussion, since everyone in the room has some expertise to share.

Victor Asal and I ran a new Career Course on Teaching the Intro Class. We focused on both intro to IR and comparative politics, covering such topics as what to do on Day 1, reading/text options, writing good exams and written assignments, classroom management, and of course, games and other activities to teach the material. Our participants had a ton of great ideas and insights.

On the panel on Theory and Practice in IR Teaching: Effectiveness, Political Engagement, and Active Learning, Marcelo Valenca of Escola de Guerra Naval discussed the changing nature and approaches toward pedagogical training in Brazil. He pointed particularly to the impact of the pedagogy workshops held by the College of Wooster’s Jeffrey Lantis, Kent Kille, and Mathew Krain as being instrumental in bringing change to that country. The Wooster Three were mentors of mine when I was in graduate school, so I wasn’t surprised but still pleased to learn about the far-reaching impact of their efforts.

I presented a paper on using a game-version of the television show Survivor to incentive my students to complete the readings, pay attention to current events, and learn geography. The results on the geography front were…not what I expected. Students who took a single, traditional Map Quiz performed much better than this students in the game that had regular, weekly practice in geography! But as we’ve said many times before, failure can be a useful learning tool and this has prompted me to really investigate the key variables about the game that may have hindered learning, so more on that in the future.

An audience member on that panel (Ian Manners, University of Copenhagen) pointed out the utility of using student-created learning modules as a way of engaging students in learning content at a high level. I love this idea, and i’m going to use it in my seminar on sex, marriage, and violence in the fall.

Finally, some conference news: ISA is holding its first Innovative Pedagogy Conference on November 15th in St. Louis, the day before ISA’s Midwest meeting. There will be a plenary, keynote speech by ISA President Patrick James, a graduate student teacher training certification session, and 8 workshops on subjects such as faculty led study abroad programs, designing curriculum, research literacy, civic engagement, assessment of active learning, publishing in the scholarship of teaching and learning, designing simulations, and using simulations and games to teach political violence. At least two members of Team ALPS (myself and Victor Asal) will be there, so please join us!

ISA now has a Professional Resource Center which includes a syllabi archive and a great site for finding some good simulations to use in your classes. You do have to be a member to access the PRC but consider sending in your materials for inclusion!

Finally, a note on submitting to ISA: the two sections that tend to sponsor ALPS-style papers and roundtables are Active Learning in International Affairs (ALIAS) and International Education. I’m section program chair for the latter, and talking with the program chair for ALIAS, we not that we don’t get a ton of first-round submissions. If you’ve thought about presenting a paper or organizing a panel or roundtable relevant to either section, please do so–we are eager for more submissions for next year’s conference in Toronto. There are also opportunities for Innovative Panels, Career Courses, and Flash Talks–check out ISA’s website for more details. Some topics that I know are of interest to my section include best practices in study abroad, transformations in higher education (particularly from a comparative perspective), the challenges of being a faculty administrator of international programs, and curricular design features for IR programs.

That’s it for now! As usual, conferences spur me into thinking in new directions for my pedagogy, and I’m excited to start putting some of these ideas into practice.

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.

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

#MeToo in the Ivoriest of Towers

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an extensive account of the sexual harassment of Terry Lynn Karl by Jorge Dominguez at Harvard in the 1980s. Dominguez was sanctioned by the university after Karl filed an EEOC complaint, but Karl decided that Harvard’s response was inadequate and she left. The Chronicle article quotes her as saying, “I knew he was going to keep doing it,” and sure enough, the article contains allegations from several other women about incidents that occurred over a span of decades.

I have shared this story with students who are in my comparative politics course this semester. Why? First, they have already read some of Karl’s work. I hope that learning more about her career will help them better appreciate the quality of her scholarship and her contributions to the field of comparative politics. Second, and more importantly, I hope that the information will demonstrate that, even within the most hallowed institutions, the personal is political. Karl spoke truth to power and suffered the consequences, but in the end she has probably helped make higher education in the USA a better place for women.

In the deep midwinter

So, we’re striking here in the UK.

Obviously, it’s not the weather for it, but that’s not really the point. Instead, the scale of the changes being proposed by universities to the national pension scheme calls for a strong response.

Part of that response is education. I’ve now been part of several discussions with people who didn’t realise that striking means not getting paid, for example.

One key group to involve in this education is students. My department, as well as many others I’m aware of, has organised meetings prior to the strike action, to allow students to ask whatever questions they might have.

Just to make the point, this matters for several reasons.

Firstly, students are the group most affected by strikes: their growing weight in universities’ calculations (through student satisfaction surveys and consumerisation of education, it must be noted) mean that it through disruption of classes that the staff union sees the most effective leverage.

Secondly, students are part of the university community. Even if they weren’t directly affected, they work in symbiosis with staff, so it’s important they can feel they understand what’s going on. With universities focusing on messages solely on the efforts to minimise disruption of classes, there’s a communication gap that deserves to be filled.

And thirdly, one of the key messages of higher education is surely that we never stop learning.

Casting my mind back a few years, our department was threatened with extensive cutbacks, as part of an organisational review. You, the academic community, done sterling work in giving support in opposing this, but just as important was the role our students played. The thoughtfulness and informed nature of their interventions proved not only very helpful in the specific instance, but also in giving them a learning moment. We still see the echoes of that with those students still with us.

And so it is here. Our meetings with students have been marked by them talking through the issues themselves, rather than just taking what we say.

Our students don’t all agree a common line on the strike, and that’s fine, because we now feel much more confident that they are discussing from a position of reflection and understanding.

Civics doesn’t have the same kind of tradition it does in the US, but moments like these should remind us that we are all part of a society and of a polity: if we don’t act, then others will act for (or on) us.

It should also make us think about the conditions under which cooperation makes more sense than competition: that alone is more than enough for a day on the picket line.

UPDATE – Here’s a piece that captures much better these points.

Keeping it fresh IV: sense-check

Mmm. Maybe I need a certified sense-check, from Germany.

I’m (slowly) rebuilding my negotiation module for the autumn (starting here), and am toying with different ways of doing this.

Apparently, it’s the season for this, and reading the recent posts from Chad and from Natascha I think it’s a good moment to try to get out of my furrow and look around.

Chad pointed to the work by Erin Baumann and John FitzGibbon on the utility of stripping back content: focusing on what’s not needed, rather than what’s good/nice to add. This is very much an issue for mature provision, where the barnacles of “a bright idea I had 5 years ago” impair the sleek running lines of the original design.

Typically, I’ve approached this problem from the other end, telling people that it’s best to start out with something simple, then add in complexity as you go along and feel more confident about what’s what. What Baumann and FitzGibbon are doing is asking us to sense-check as we go, and not just add for the sake of adding.

In either case, it’s a matter of keeping your learning objectives crystal-clear, wherever you are in the journey.

For me and my particular case, a central objective has been to develop self-awareness and self-reflection on the part of students, so they can make their own judgements about their negotiating practice.

Over the years, that’s meant trying to carve out more space for practice and for debriefing, which is where Natascha’s post comes in.

Natascha writes about flipping a research methods class and turning it into more of a tool-box: students come in with diverse needs, so why try to fit them all into the same format?

Clearly, there’s an issue here with present and future needs – it might be great to be able to avoid learning about a particular technique that you don’t like, but much less great if it turns out you need that technique down the line.  For me that’s an issue, as someone who thinks methods follow questions, not the other way around.

However, in the more limited context of negotiation, I think this issue is much smaller. Partly that’s because all the elements interlink and partly it’s because the practical activity of negotiation tends to play up that interlinkage. To take an obvious example, any negotiation can be understood better by focusing on preparation, just as any negotiation can be understood by looking at communication: both are essential and pervasive.

With this in mind, I’m very tempted by the toolbox approach that Natascha sets out – parking my delivered content in podcasts and/or online elements – and using contact time to run exercises that are less driven by different factors. Indeed, this might help with the joined-exercises approach I discussed last time around.

But the most important message I’m taking from this stage is that the wheel has already been invented.

Rather than having to go back to the drawing board every time, and do it all from scratch, there is a great community out there, with ideas and approaches. And because most people are happy to share, we should make the most of that.

So my next stage is to go hunting and found out more of what’s going on, and thinking about how I can re-use it.