Active Learning from Day 1: Comparing Textbooks

I like to start my semesters the way I intend to continue them, with an active learning activity on the first day of class. But what do you do when you don’t have any content yet? You let the students develop the content themselves. My last several (regular) posts for this group will focus on activities for the first day of class that don’t require any student background knowledge yet get them used to the idea that they’ll be out of their seats and interacting regularly in this course.

In Introduction to World Politics/International Relations, students are frequently unsure what exactly they’ve signed up to study. A significant minority think they’re studying the politics of other countries, others think they’re doing global current events, and others think it’s foreign policies of great powers. Over the years I’ve built a collection of textbook samples that vary widely in their approaches to the field. I give pairs of students a worksheet that asks them to compare two textbooks to the textbook we’re using in the class. What topics are included in all of the books? Can you find a topic that is in one book but not the other two? For fun, I throw a couple ambiguously titled comparative politics textbooks into the box. The point of the exercise is for them to define the central core of topics in the field of IR, and then we identify some of the contested or less-central issues that appear in a minority of books.

When I have a 75-minute class, I then ask them to compare two different editions of the same book, at least two editions apart. (This part of the activity is only possible because I’ve been collecting textbooks for 15 years and raided some retiring faculty members’ stashes as well; your campus library may have old titles that were previously in use at your school.) We compare topics that were prominent in immediate-post-Cold War titles to those that appear in post-9/11 titles, and in a few cases, we can even compare Cold War books too (I’ve got two Morgenthaus that I’ll sometimes entrust to students and a couple early Russett and Starrs). Students are usually quick to notice that the central core topics haven’t changed that much but that a lot more has been added to the scope of the field since the end of the Cold War. We talk about the implications of that for what we teach and study, and how.

Collateral damage in the rise of active learning

Geddit?

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

A game to start your interactions with students

I realise this is probably a bit late for most of you, but here’s a game to play with students to teach them a valuable lesson about how education works.

I was taught it about a decade ago by David Jaques, but never had a) the equipment, or b) the opportunity, until last week, at our Departmental awayday.

the only photo I’m allowed to post

You’ll need a piece of string long enough to go comfortably around the room you’re using (which will be a bit longer than you think), plus blindfolds for everyone. On the latter, I had hand-made some out of old t-shirts, but then I checked on Amazon and found that as a side-effect of Fifty Shades, you can get multi-packs for a few pounds. Avoid the fluffy ones, and also be prepared to see your suggested purchase algorithm take a hit.

Before the game, arrange furniture with tables and chairs, so that the string can be threaded into a big loop. I had cut my string into several sections and tied them back together, so that when I tied it all into a big loop, that last join wouldn’t be exceptional. Leave some way to allow access to the central of the space.

Then you bring in the participants, with their blindfold on and join them to the string.

The instructions you’ll have given beforehand are as follows:

“You’re in a burning building, and thick smoke means you can’t see at all. However, there is an escape route: follow the string to the end. If you need help, just stick up your hand.”

Once everyone’s attached to the string, off you go. Or off they go.

Now, as I’ve explained it to you, you know there’s no end to the string, but what do you think they’ll do?

That’s right: spend 20 minutes blindly chasing around the string, trying to find the end and getting annoyed with you/me.

Keep reminding them of the rules, as set out above. I certainly found myself putting more and more emphasis on the last sentence (because that’s the key one).

When someone puts up their hand, then go over to them, whisper to them to take off their blindfold, then gestue that they have escaped and should let go of the string and step silently to one side and watch. In my game, that took 15 minutes before anyone did that, and it took 30 minutes before the final group decided to ‘concede’ and ask for help.

The point of the game is, obviously, that if someone offers you help, then you should take it.

I have always liked the idea of the game, because it’s very clear in its purpose (seen from the end), and I’m really keen to try it out on students, especially since I now have a pile of blindfolds. It opens up a conversation about learning styles and interpersonal dynamics: do the people you think will ask for help do so? Is help cheating? And so on.

It might be a bit late for the start of semester, but if my colleagues are anything to do by, then it’s never too late to try out.

Beyond the mountains

As part of the various discussions on learning & teaching at UACES last week, we held a roundtable on the INOTLES project that I’ve been involved with for the past few years.

We were talking about the difficulties of designing pedagogic materials for use by others, and I gave the example of the photo above.

It’s from my summer holiday in Croatia (yes, we had a lovely time, thank you for asking).

Most days, we would sit on the beach, swim a bit, read a bit, generally laze about. But I would also find myself asking what was on the other side of the mountains that I could see.

At one level, I know exactly what’s there. I have a map, guidebooks; I’ve even possibly spent some time on Google Earth, flying over the terrain.

But at another level, I have no real idea what it’s like. I’ve never visited (having found that the beach was a perfectly lovely spot); I’ve never even talked to someone who has been over the mountains.

And that’s rather the situation I find with designing materials for others to use.

I feel I had a good grasp of what’s important in any given pedagogic method, the core elements that must be present for it to work, and I feel confident that I can communicate that to others.

But I also know that without actually experiencing the situation of the end-user, it’s very hard to make something that is very useful (rather than just functioning), because there are a wide variety of factors that come into play.

To come back to the INOTLES project, one of the big challenges was re-adjusting my understanding of the situation of our partners in Eastern Europe. While I was worrying initially about aligning assessment with game-play in simulations, they were worrying about a lack of furniture in their classrooms.

Problematically, this is not an easy situation to resolve. When we create materials for sharing, we always do with a number of assumptions that are more or less implicit. Even if we could list all those assumptions, it’s not immediately obvious how they might impact on pedagogy (the presence/absence of furniture might be a good example).

Perhaps the best we can do is be alive to this issue and to be open to discussion with end-users about how they see things and what adjustments might be suitable. In short, talking with each other might be the way forward, to take us to the edge of the mountains.

Checking assumptions, breaking the ice: the UACES L&T workshop

Oh, I seem to be promoting this website… (thanks to @bentonra for the photo)

I’m in Poland this week, for the annual conference of UACES, the world’s largest European Studies association, of which I’m very proud to be Treasurer.

As part of the conference, we run an L&T workshop on the day beforehand. We’ve been doing this for some years now and it seems to be a good way of ensuring some critical mass on things teaching-y and for giving an opportunity to try out some different formats.

As such, each year, we do different things in a very deliberate way: it not only keeps it fresh, but also demonstrates to participants how they can reconfigure their practice.

Last year, I was tasked with an ice-breaker task, so I tried out an activity that sought to marry ‘getting to know you’ with ‘talking about teaching.’

Obviously, I used post-it notes to achieve this.

As we started, we gave out a post-it to everyone and told them to write one idea that they have found useful for improving their teaching practice. I was keen to stress that should be no limits to this, so it could be anything at all.

Once they’d done that, I got people to stick their post-it on to their name badge and then go and introduce themselves to someone they didn’t know, and explain their idea to each other.

Within minutes I had a room of people chatting away.

After a while, as chat began to die down, I got everyone to swap around, to meet a new person they didn’t know and repeat the exercise. We did a third cycle too.

Having broken some ice, I then asked everyone to stick their post-it on a whiteboard, which I’d marked up with two axes: a horizontal one of small things-big things, and a vertical one of degree of subject specificity.

The final stage was to talk about what had been posted and using it to flag some points that fed into the next part of the workshop.

As an exercise, I’d observe that it was very helpful for getting a bunch of people who mostly didn’t know each other to start conversations, but also in getting me to think about the variety of what people bring to such sessions.

I’m very fortunate that I have a great community of people with whom I exchange regularly on L&T: we share a lot of language and range of considerations.

But that’s not the only way of doing things, as this exercise demonstrated.

I’d made some assumptions about what people would write: my own contribution was ABC feedback; small, quick, generic. Surely everyone would do the same.

Well, as you can see in the photo, there was a load of that (group 2), but we also had a lot of other stuff too (see list at the bottom of this post).

In part, this reflected some debate about “what’s ‘small’/’big’”, but it was mainly about the different backgrounds of the people. A browse of the list will show that all kinds of things are there.

So it’s a good moment to remember that we have to check our assumptions, not only with our students, but also with each other.

Now to find out more about what inverted learning might involve.

That list in full:

1: Quite small, relatively subject specific

  • Innovative assessment (e.g. briefing papers, not always essays)

 

2: Small and generic

  • Student field trips (with prep talks)
  • To do the work at the best/highest level, to bring to discussion new, sometimes challenging ideas
  • Find a balance between interaction and structure and guidance
  • Inverted learning, leading to advanced study, leading to connections of experience and debates
  • Tell jokes
  • ABC feedback
  • Role play
  • Tell jokes
  • Get students to use Moodle in class
  • Good use of first and last 5 minutes of the class
  • Involving participants in the discussion

 

3: more substantial, but still generic

  • Meetings to exchange experience/knowledge
  • Tour de table: get students to hear their own voice
  • Discussing current news by linking current problems with EU studies
  • Setting up workshops
  • Role play exercises
  • Brain-storming sessions
  • Use professional exchange: people of different scientific and professional backgrounds address cross-cutting issues
  • Working with students’ practical experience
  • Using self-reflection as a teaching method: students reflecting their performance during an internship, classes
  • Engagement through debating
  • Introduce student-run blog
  • Using study visits to enhance students’ experience and understanding

 

4: big, and quite subject-specific

  • Teaching EU business (school) students
  • Visit Brussels
  • Mixing masters and undergraduate cohorts in same unit

Theory Chapter Tetris and Other Ruminations of ‘Teaching’ Online

In a previous post, I talked about how I was embarking on a new career trajectory that involved teaching writing and project management skills online via videoconference, and that I was thinking intensely about how to involve active learning principles in this teaching.

I have to say, it’s been a real challenge. I’ve done my best to leverage the capabilities of Zoom.us, the free videoconference platform that I use. Zoom allows screen sharing as well as on-screen annotation by both parties. I’ve done some collaborative outlining and collaborative editing with clients to teach those crucial skills. But at some level, it seems like not enough.

My most recent innovation was ‘Theory Chapter Tetris.’ A client had a theory chapter that she described as “a hot mess,” and I would largely concur. She wanted to keep as much of what she already had written as possible, though. To me, that sounds like a game of Tetris: take a bunch of misshapen pieces of various sizes and fit them together into solid chunks without a lot of gaps or extra bits sticking out. So I turned her sections into pieces and we manipulated them into a series of chapter outline options. Continue reading

Fancy a week in Cyprus? A call for proposals

Did I mention you’ll be right next to the Green Line? #PoliSciHoliday

As the staff close up Chateau Usherwood for the traditional summer break, I’m reminded that the call for paper for the ECPR Joint Sessions is now open.

These Sessions run on a similar format to APSA’s TLC – a firm ALPSBlog favourite – but with four full days sat with the same group, working through papers on a common theme, with an output very much in mind at the end.

The idea is that you spend a proper block on time, focused on the issues and get/give lots of feedback to each other to move things on.

Plus, next year it’s in Cyprus, so that’ll be good too.

I share this because Peter Bursens and I have organised a Session on learning gains from active learning, i.e. exactly the kind of thing you guys are well into.

If you’d like to join us, then you just need to submit a proposal via the online portal: you’ll need to sort out your status with ECPR first (membership is institutional rather than individual). There are also some funding options available too.

I really hope you can join us, both because this is emerging as a critical area of work in L&T, and because it’s good to have the time and space to discuss such things.