Teaching Trump #2

A follow-up to Amanda’s post about teaching in the time of Trump. Trump’s campaign and administration represent an opportunity to teach about racism in the construction of national identity. I stumbled into this subject accidentally in my globalization course last week, with an assignment that asked students to write a response to “Is France or the USA a more global society?” Students were supposed to reference the following items:

Yesterday I heard this radio report about residents of Newton, Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest and therefore whitest communities in the USA: Continue reading

The Change All Around, Part 1

The spring semester is about to begin, and as usual I have changed what I will be doing and how I will be doing it. I thought it might be interesting for the dear readers of this blog to learn about some of the factors that will affect my teaching over the next few months. But just to be contrarian, I’ll start in reverse chronological order:

I’ve decided to use Michelle’s technique of placing simulations at the end of the semester when both students and I will be approaching burnout mode. I have done a complete redesign of my comparative politics course, dropping the themes in favor of more traditionally-presented content like the diverse institutional arrangements of democracies. In an attempt to get at this topic, I have resurrected my Gerkhania simulation, but have tweaked it to give it more structure. First, I will assign students roles that have different ethnically-oriented, two-sentence backstories. The class will then convene as the Gerkhanian Commission for National Reconciliation, which has the following tasks: Continue reading

Farewell to Surrey

A few thoughts inspired by the recently-concluded Political Studies Association-sponsored Workshop on New Pedagogies at the University of Surrey in Guildford, as I sit in Terminal 3 at Heathrow.

Not a hobbit
Not a hobbit

Active learning strategies present several advantages and disadvantages for teachers. First, they often recognize that people don’t necessarily all learn the same things at the same speed. Any classroom in which these techniques are employed can be thought of as an effort in differentiated instruction — which can be beneficial when students possess varying amounts of prior knowledge.

Second, these methods create spaces where students can and often must behave in different ways. Not only can this force students to figure out how to ask the important questions in the right ways, it can also increase their motivation, an important intermediary variable when it comes to learning.

Third, many active learning exercises include a meta-cognitive stage in which a student’s articulation of his or her understanding is what produces understanding.

Also not a hobbit.
Also not a hobbit.

Fourth, active learning can, if implemented properly, offer opportunities for students’ conceptual, skill, and emotional development. Integrating all of these dimensions into the classroom requires careful consideration on the part of the instructor, but the payoffs can be quite high.

There are no bad ideas

Activating prior knowledge is a critical step in engaging students and facilitating learning.  There’s a whole bunch of literature in cognitive science that tells us that learning happens when students connect new knowledge to existing knowledge.  Brainstorming is one simple technique that can activate prior knowledge and encourage students to make these connections. Continue reading

What We Know About Learning

Eddie WatsonAnother follow-up to the 2016 TLC — this year’s keynote address was delivered by Eddie Watson, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia. He devoted part of his address to what the cognitive scientists and psychologists know about learning, and how we can put that knowledge to use in the classroom:

  • Identify what your students already know and teach accordingly. Use knowledge probes, pre-semester surveys, and pre-test/post-test instruments.
  • Performance followed by immediate feedback increases learning. The feedback doesn’t have to come from you — it can be just as effective if it comes from peers. [Perhaps this points to a reason why some simulations and games are pedagogically valuable.]
  • Learning is often facilitated by social interaction. [See above.]
  • Frequent testing promotes learning; it is more powerful than passive “studying.”
  • Being able to actively process information — for example, by applying it in a particular context — tends to result in greater learning.

For additional details, read Daniel Willingham’s work, which is linked to this post and to the blogroll on the ALPS homepage.

It’s not what you say…

2934775218_4edd6d67a5There’s a lot to be said for banality. It’s probably the most under-rated of teaching practices, mainly because it’s so little remarked upon. We always talk about pushing our students to the edge of their knowledge and understanding, so that this edge is pushed further back, and we also keep flagging the core ideas as lodestones, but we only rarely come back to the stuff in-between: the logical corollaries of the core concepts.

Yesterday’s class with my negotiation students was a case in point.

The session was centred on the theme of preparation, and asked them to agree a governmental coalition in the wake of the Spanish elections. This threw up lots of great thoughts and discussions about many points: Spanish politics, coalition-building in general, verisimilitude in simulations (they ended up with a grand coalition), and even stuff about preparation (I’d possibly been less than helpful about what prep they needed to do).

But for me, the big lesson was one that I end up discussing at length every year, but never quite manage to embed explicitly in the module’s work. And it’s a banal point: simply put, it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear that matters.

“Sure”, you’re thinking, “that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”


Even if you never studied negotiation, then you know enough about constructivism to appreciate the objective weight of subjective interpretations, enough about the importance of clear communication in any sphere of life, and enough about life to know that misunderstandings and talking-at-cross-purposes happens pretty often.

But you also might well have never put those things together to consider the banal point that people will tend to understand things as they understand them, rather than as someone else understands them. So it doesn’t matter if I think I’m being clear, if you don’t think I’m being clear.

Likewise, my students seemed to have a bit of block in understanding why there had been some tension in the negotiations. A couple of groups had left the room to work out some options, and didn’t want to be disturbed by emissaries from the other parties. Unfortunately, since they were the PP and PSOE and ended up with that grand coalition proposal, when they did present it to the others, they didn’t get much joy. Both sides were still quite sore about it, even during the debrief, and we had to work through how this had come to pass before we could get to all that other stuff I mentioned.

I’ve written about this before in a different context and that’s maybe the point: at some stage it becomes so obvious that it’s hard to remember that we need to remember it.

In my case, I’m fortunate that it’s such a pervasive issue that it does always come up at some point in class, but you might not have that. All of us might do well to remember that to leap from central theoretical tenet straight to the boundary can be exciting and engaging, but it can also come with costs.

Can we make our students into superforecasters?

Poster_of_Alexander_Crystal_SeerAs long-standing readers might recall, I read. A lot. But I don’t tend to talk/write about my reading much, either because it’s not immediately relevant or because the rest of my life is so rich with incident. Probably the former, then.

However, I’ve just ploughed through Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner’s “Superforecasting“, which does offer some interesting perspectives that might be tied to our work in the classroom.

Tetlock will be known to you for the meme that most predictions are no better than chance in their accuracy. As he points out, while that might be true in the aggregate, it’s not true for ever forecaster, and this book (which follows up the Expert Political Judgment that set out the (rigorous) basis for the meme) explores those people who have demonstrated a consistent and measurable ability to outperform both the metaphorical ‘crowd’, but also other mechanisms, such as forecasting markets.

Tetlock’s core point is that such ability is not innate, but learnt and learnable. And that’s what interests me here.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been teaching students about negotiation theory, before I drop them off into the metaphorical deep end of actual negotiation. One of the core skills I’ve been trying to stress to them is the need for preparation, which forms the bedrock of good practice.

However, while it’s easy to say “be prepared”, it’s often hard to know how to prepare, especially if the situation is a complex one. And I can see utility in Tetlock’s approach as a way of improving the chances of having as good an oversight of the preparatory phase as possible.

In practical terms, that means doing things like breaking down intractable problems into tractable sub-problems, looking at the situation from as many different perspectives as possible and engaging in constant checking of your practice and biases.All the kinds of things we might be encouraging students to do as active learners, in fact.

And perhaps that’s the point. Learning is a memetic process, where we draw analogies across from one place to another, hopefully casting light on the way. Tetlock’s not interested in this book about effective actors, although he does mention several examples of how his core ideas get operationalised, but about our ability to forecast events. I’m less interested in that, but can see how I could use it to improve students’ performance elsewhere.

Tetlock talks about the rise of the ‘mission command‘ model in the military, the notion that what matters is the underlying intent, which local commanders can then find the most appropriate way to achieve it. This replacement of the strict hierarchy of command-and-control with something much more flexible and adaptable is not so different from the shift towards active learning. We set out learning objectives and students find their own path towards them.

I wouldn’t want to stretch this too far, but it makes the point that we should be casting our nets as widely as possible when developing our practice, because the analogies can take us to places that might never have considered before.