Just What Is Active Learning?

Cultivating that personal myth of superstar teacher will only take you so far.
Cultivating that personal myth of superstar teacher will only take you so far.

Videos of lectures are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for active learning. The classroom is not flipped if the instructor, rather than the student, remains central to the student’s learning process. The more we make students’ learning dependent on something we provide, whether it be didactic classroom lectures, online videos, worksheets, or Socratic dialogue, the more we reflect Paulo Freire’s banking model of education, in which “the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.”

I’ve been reminded of these principles by recent discussions with colleagues, some of whom have concluded that active learning and lecturing in the physical classroom are mutually exclusive. There is plenty of evidence indicating that a lecture, if organized and delivered in a way that engages students,  is just as effective as other forms of instruction. Similarly, an absence of lectures does not automatically make the classroom environment conducive to learning. Assuming otherwise illustrates the prevalence of the Dunning-Kruger effect in academia.

I’ve also been reminded about what “active learning” really means by my university’s evaluation of teaching instrument, which is distributed to students in the last few weeks of every semester.

Continue reading

Refugees in the Neighborhood

FugeesYesterday in my first-year seminar, I made up on the spot a role-playing exercise about refugees. I divided the class into three groups:

  • A northern Kenyan village of 400 farmers and livestock herders.
  • 1,100 refugees migrating from South Sudan.
  • A humanitarian aid organization.

I told the refugees that their goal was to cross the border with Kenya and that they could only take with them what fit into a small box that I had grabbed from my desk before class (a box that had contained business cards, approximately 7″ X 4″ X 2″). They had to decide what to put in the box and determine the route to take into Kenya.

The Kenyans were told that 1,100 South Sudanese had arrived without food, water, or shelter — tripling the village’s population. These students were tasked with identifying the pre-existing needs of their village and how the refugee influx would affect village conditions.

The humanitarian aid workers got to select which NGO they were part of, and they chose Doctors Without Borders. I arbitrarily assigned them a budget of $20,000 to operate a medical clinic in the village. These students had to decide what forms of medical care they would supply and who would receive it.

Refugees chose to carry identity documents, money, photos, pocket knives, and snacks. All of them assumed that rural East Africans don’t have cell phones. I pointed out the implicit bias in this assumption.To identify a route, the refugees required a demonstration of how to use Google Maps — never underestimate the digital illiteracy of supposed digital natives. They ignored the possibility of paying people to drive them across the border.

The staff of Doctors Without Borders decided to treat both the refugees and villagers at an 80:20 ratio in terms of the clinic’s budget. They also agreed that the limited resources at their disposal necessitated a system of triage. Severe injuries and illnesses simply could not be treated in a cost-effective manner and those individuals would be left to die. Unfortunately one of the refugees had gotten shot in the chest while crossing the border and the lower right arm of the wealthiest villager was traumatically amputated when he tried to clear a jammed piece of agricultural machinery. Malaria was not judged to be worthy of treatment either because of its low mortality rate.

The villagers were upset that Doctors Without Borders was providing aid to people who were causing a shortage of clean drinking water. They also resented not being asked by wealthy foreigners what kind of aid was most needed in the village — better seeds, a reliable supply of electricity, and irrigation equipment.

Did students get any significant benefits from the exercise? I don’t know. The back and forth conversation that occurred when I questioned students about their decisions seemed useful.

I think the exercise easily could be improved by adding some structure. For example, I could provide the NGO workers with a list of different types of aid — tents, jugs of drinking water, antibiotics — the number of people helped by each type, and associated costs. This would allow me to establish specific unintended consequences for various choices.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-profit organization that assists refugees around the world, operates a news feed on Medium that could function as a source of preparatory readings.  For example, there is “What refugees ask when they arrive in Europe” and “What’s in my bag? What refugees bring when they run for their lives.”

Perhaps I should make these adjustments and run the exercise a second time.

Death of a Simulation . . . ? Inside Disaster/Haiti

Inside Disaster Screenshot

Over the last few years I’ve been using the Inside Disaster website for teaching about humanitarian emergencies, poverty, and other subjects. Inside Disaster was created by a Canadian team that followed the Red Cross into Haiti in 2010 to document its post-earthquake relief operations. The results of the team’s work included a three-part film documentary, an interactive first-person role-play video simulation, and other original content that it made available for free online. The documentary provided an emotionally-gripping inside look into disaster response operations. The simulation was the best that I’ve seen in its genre. The entire site functioned as an extremely high-quality educational resource. More details about the project can be found in the documentary trailer and in its press kit.

I put the preceding paragraph in the past tense because a few days ago I discovered that the website was down. After some poking around I connected with Katie McKenna, the producer for Inside Disaster and currently the founder and principal of Working Knowledge. Here is her response to my query (published here with her permission):

Inside Disaster is dear to everyone who put it together and we’re so happy it’s been of use to you and other educators.

The problem we’ve run into is that the hosting and streaming costs have gotten prohibitive.  My colleagues who created it have since closed down their company and moved on to other projects. They’ve been paying the hosting costs out of pocket because we all care about Inside Disaster so much.

It costs approximately CAD$2000 (about US$1500) a year for the streaming and hosting charges.  If folks could come up two-thirds of that I’m sure I could raise the rest through allies here. Do you know of anyone who would be interested in contributing a portion of the hosting costs as a license fee to keep things going? If so, they can contact me at katie[at]getworkingknowledge[dot]com.

So I throw this plea out to the digital void: If you have an interest in keeping alive an online tool for teaching about emergency management, humanitarian assistance, journalism, international politics, or Haiti, or just want your students to have access to a great simulation on decision making during a crisis, feel free to contact Ms. McKenna.

Mathematical Fairness in a Constitutional Convention

This is a guest post from Sarah Fisher, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Emory & Henry College and Rachel Bayless, Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Agnes Scott College. 

As a political scientist and a mathematician we come from seemingly disparate fields- and what often are in an academic setting (quantitative political science notwithstanding). This summer, we had the opportunity to highlight the interconnectedness of these subjects and engage students in a collaborative activity.Math_Pols1

We were each teaching a course during an intensive three week program for gifted middle school students. One course focused on political simulations and problem solving in international affairs (taught by Sarah), while the other course was concerned with mathematical problem solving (taught by Rachel). As part of the international affairs course, students constructed a constitution for a newly formed fictional country (more information on this simulation can be found on Florian Justwan or Sarah Fisher’s website). The international affairs students acted as delegates for a constitutional convention. Meanwhile, the mathematics students learned four rigorous definitions of fairness and applied that knowledge to different types of voting systems. We brought our students together to decide which voting system would be most appropriate and “fair” for the new fictional country.

The international affairs students were divided into different societal groups with preferences that would likely favor one type of voting system over another. For example the societal group with the largest population would prefer a plurality voting system because their candidate is likely to have the highest number of first-place votes. On the other hand, a small societal group may support using Borda count because even if their candidate doesn’t have the most first-place votes, he/she can still win the election if they are ranked second or third by many voters.

We collaborated with several goals in mind. For the international affairs students, a primary goal was to utilize mathematical arguments to solve a societal problem. Applying the formal definition of fairness to electoral systems showed that there is no “perfectly fair” voting system. Rather, politicians must make tradeoffs between ideals of fairness, societal preferences, and personal gain. During the simulation, the lack of a clear “right” or “wrong,” even in a mathematical sense, was frustrating and illustrative. As a class, students settled on using the Borda count method in their elections.

One of the primary goals for the mathematics students was to identify the connections between mathematics and social justice. Mathematics is not just a tool for science, engineering, or statistics. Mathematics can help inform ethical issues ranging from a fair election to a fair way to distribute organs for organ transplants. Both sets of students had the chance to teach one another what they had just learned and needed to listen to classmates who were the “experts” in a given area- either constitutional design or mathematics.Math_Pols2

The mathematics students were provided information on each of the fictional ethnic groups and instructed to act as consultants for the constitutional convention delegates. We spent an entire six hour class day on this simulation, but this same goal could be achieved using an online platform or a shorter amount of dedicated class time with undergraduates.

The activity’s success encouraged the instructors to seek out more ways to collaborate in the upcoming semester. What ways could we incorporate other fields of study into our classrooms?

The Best Laid Plans

Cat and MouseA while back I wrote a series of posts on reworking my first-year seminar. My assumption was that this fall’s version would meet three days a week, as happened in the course’s initial iteration. I recently learned that instead it will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Given that much of the course involves student-to-student interaction in the classroom, the new schedule necessitated further changes. To start, I dropped the book that I had originally fit into the last third of the semester, and with it plans for a class-wide Twine project. The course now looks like this:

  • Team-based Twines on the book An Ordinary Man (Rwanda).
  • Simulation exercises on the first four cases in Chasing Chaos (Rwanda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone).
  • Team-based Twines on the last case in Chasing Chaos (Haiti).

Since this is a course for incoming college students, I added The New Science of Learning and some other meta-cognitive content on skills for academic success. This means that students will have on average three writing assignments on readings per week even though the class only meets twice a week, which I think this is a good thing. Students won’t be able to forget about the course between Thursdays and Tuesdays.

As I discussed in my informal assessment back in January, I had a problematic formulation for the briefing memo that prepared students for each Chasing Chaos simulation. I’ve rewritten the assignment instructions accordingly, and created a new sample memo for students to use as a guide. The effort that I’m putting into the design of this course reflects something about how college works that I’ll discuss in more detail in my next two posts.

ICONS Crisis in North Korea

Here is a review of the ICONS Crisis in North Korea simulation:

Kim FatheadSubjects: IR in East Asia, IR theory, international security, diplomacy and negotiation

Learning outcomes for students

I used this simulation in my course on the comparative political history of Asia. The simulation represented an opportunity for students to:

  • Gain a better understanding of international relations in Asia.
  • Analyze multiple approaches to solving contemporary global problems.

Applicable readings

Crisis in North Korea is relevant to a number of texts on East Asian politics. Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States, by Alexis Dudden, a book I’ve used previously, would situate the simulation within a wider historical and diplomatic context. IR survey texts, such as the chapters on theory and conflict in Essentials of International Relations by Mingst and Arreguín-Toft,.also apply.

Logistical considerations

As I mentioned in a previous post about low-enrollment classes, I ran this simulation with only eleven students. The six teams — USA, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea — should have at least three members each, so the ideal class size for the simulation is probably eighteen to twenty-four students. The simulation can probably be successfully run in larger classes, especially if the instructor prepares specific roles within teams for each student to play; for example, defense minister, foreign minister, etc. However, each state functions as a unitary actor in the simulation, so the larger the teams get, the greater the potential for some students to become disengaged, passive observers.

ICONS recommends scheduling at least 150 minutes for the simulation, divided into two 75-minute sessions, which is the time frame I used.  My students said they felt rushed in the second session; I suspect that trying to compress the simulation into an even smaller block of time risks disaster. Extending the simulation across three 75-minute sessions probably works better; at minimum this allows plenty of time for debriefing.

ICONS costs money. Either the instructor can pay a lump sum to enroll his or her class or students can pay individually. I chose the latter option because I don’t receive institutional support for these in-class experiences and I did not want to bother with collecting money from students. The per-student price was an extremely reasonable $13.

Materials needed

ICONS is housed entirely online, so each team of students needs at least one device with an internet connection. A laptop or computer per student is possibly more effective. The instructor also needs access to the internet on a separate machine during the simulation.

Instructor preparation

The concise facilitator guide provided to instructors clearly explains how to manage the simulation. The ICONS website is intuitive and easy to navigate. I spent a small amount of time on setting up teams and other administrative tasks. In general, this simulation requires minimal instructor preparation.

Student preparation

Students need to create accounts and pay for the simulation to gain access the ICONS website. They also need to read background information and the role sheet for the country to which they’ve been assigned. All of these documents are only a few pages long, clearly written, and available on the website. Students found the website easy to navigate.

I created an auto-graded quiz on my course website, worth one percent of the final grade, to encourage students to familiarize themselves with the simulation before it began. I also used the ICONS Pre-Negotiation Planning Report, a one-page questionnaire, as an ungraded pre-simulation in-class exercise so students could individually identify goals to achieve and then develop a shared strategy with their teammates. This exercise appeared to be very useful; students wrote detailed answers to the questions on the form.

Game play:

The simulation begins with an explosion at a nuclear facility in North Korea. The instructor periodically unveils new developments to intensify the crisis. Teams respond to what is happening either through diplomatic overtures — requests to send humanitarian aid missions, the imposition of economic sanctions, and the like — or military attacks. Peaceful actions typically require the cooperation of other states. Most military attacks require the prior approval of the instructor. If a state executes an action, the simulation generates a message describing the outcome, such as “North Korea has accepted the offer of inspectors from Japan.” The instructor determines how the simulation ends: either the effects of the nuclear accident are successfully contained or radioactive contamination spreads across international borders.

Instructor tips

Managing the simulation — reading and responding to messages, approving or disapproving teams’ actions, injecting the pre-loaded events into the crisis — requires all of the instructor’s time and attention. I was glued to my computer screen, constantly flipping between the separate feeds for messages and actions.

Sample assignments

My standard post-simulation assignment is an essay that asks students to write about which IR theory they think best explains what they experienced in the simulation, but this wasn’t an IR course, so I created this instead:

You are employed as a policy analyst at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Your task is to write an analysis of the recent crisis in North Korea. The analysis should:

1. Assess the response of the U.S. government to the recent crisis in North Korea in terms of its likely long-term effects on U.S. relations with other states in the region. 

2. Recommend whether and how the U.S. should try to improve its relations with other states in the region given the outcome of the crisis. 

Your superiors are extremely busy and want information that is concise, detailed, and easy to read. The memo must be in single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than three pages. Make sure to support your analysis with examples from the simulation and information from ICONS resources. Documents should be cited within the text rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Country Information, China)”. You are also welcome to use information from readings in the syllabus if they are relevant. There is no need to do additional research.

Extensions and portability options

While actors’ capabilities are fixed throughout the simulation, it is possible to supply information to teams that will likely alter their perceptions of other actors, which adds more of a constructivist element to game play.

Good penmanship optional during debriefing
Good penmanship optional during debriefing


At the fifteen minute mark, Japan launched an airstrike against China, an action that did not require my approval. From that point forward, teams repeatedly tried to attack each other, often with nuclear weapons. I disallowed the attacks until the U.S. team ordered a nuclear strike against South Korea  — I wanted to demonstrate the effects of not proofreading. The simulation then degenerated into a nuclear holocaust for East Asia. In sum, the game play exhibited by students was unrealistic, and I don’t think they learned much from the experience about international relations in the region.

In the debriefing students noted that outcomes did not enhance or degrade the capabilities of actors, which created the impression of a static environment where actions could be taken without consequences. They thought that the simulation would better reflect the real world if actors obtained tangible benefits each time they achieved intermediate goals. They also expressed a desire for a more extensive menu of options in responding to the actions of other teams.

I noticed the logical disconnect of using a web-based simulation in a physical classroom. ICONS enables people in different geographic locations to participate in the same simulation, but in my opinion the need for and benefits of a computer-mediated environment decrease significantly when face-to-face interaction is an option.