Choice Points, Outcomes and Chance

This is part 5 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

This post is dedicated to what could be the most important game mechanic: decision-making. One of the main challenges in teaching ethics is connecting moral theories to the kinds of decisions that students are likely to face once they graduate. The issue is not merely pedagogical but also substantial: it’s not always clear, or a matter of consensus, what a given theory would instruct us to do in a specific context. Some theorists think that ethical decision-making is not at all a matter of applying the right theory in the right way but a matter of exercising judgement or exhibiting virtue – you can’t know the right thing to do until you’re actually in the situation to make a decision.

Caverna: a family of dwarves specializing in growing wheat and sheep.

If you’re struggling with these issues, game design can help because games are all about making interesting decisions. Games are basically structures for play and what they structure is usually decision-making; the restrictions posed by well-designed games don’t stand in the way of meaningful decision-making but instead facilitate it. You may be inclined to ask your students a lot of open-ended questions, but if the goal of a class is to force students to confront a difficult trade-off in moral values, you are better off with a restricted set of options. This is exactly why so many philosophers construct bizarre and unrealistic thought-experiments to make their arguments, and it is also why students often try to substitute an easier question for the one that forces the difficult trade-off. Game designers recommend thinking about the choice points you give your students. Instead of leaving it up to students to choose whether to exercise moral judgement, create situations that force it. Continue reading

Confidence and simulations: a rising tide?

Yeah, pretty much like this

I’m in Antwerp today, as I’ve just joined the supervisory panel for Dorothy, who’s working on measuring the effectiveness of simulation games, something that we’ve repeatedly questioned here on the blog.

Reading up on this once again reminds me that one of the biggest difficulties understanding what happens in a simulation is that very much of it appears to be profoundly subjective.

Sims are vehicles for developing not only improved substantive knowledge and a range of skills, but also for creating safe spaces (yeah, I know: not that kind) for participants to explore other roles and personas than their own. Put differently, they can be moments for building confidence.

Now I don’t’ see confidence as a skill, because it strikes as more of an emotional state. Yes, you can train people to develop strategies that can make them feel more confident – preparation routines, reframing, distraction techniques – but ultimately one needs to feel confident to be confident.

Sims can be helpful in this by taking individuals out of themselves, and giving them licence to act differently. At some point, you are acting ‘out of character’, but the character you’re acting out of is your own. Continue reading

The 20 Minute Change Up: Revisiting a Classic Approach

Back in graduate school I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a Graduate Teaching Fellow. This program aimed at training a graduate student in a given department to be a trainer and resource for other graduate students who may want to develop their teaching abilities outside of the open view of their more research-oriented advisors.  I spent a summer in training, learning how to conduct peer evaluations, train teachers, and just in general learning good pedagogical principles.

I was reflecting on that experience recently, and remembered one of the articles I read then that made a big difference on how I approached teaching. It is one I shared widely with my fellow graduate students at the time. It is a simple but powerful idea, a cornerstone of the active learning approach, that is a great starting point for new teachers, and a good reminder for those of us that have been teaching for awhile: the 20 minute change up.

Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish (1996) note that studies of attention spans show that  lapses occur every 15-20 minutes.  Students simply have trouble focusing on a presentation for a longer period.  They therefore recommend changing things up every 20 minutes by introducing some kind of active component.  This can be as simple as posing a question to the classroom, showing a video, having students engage in think-pair-share, or generate exam questions based on the material.  The original article actually lists more than two dozen different techniques of changing things up.  Certainly, games and simulations fall into these categories as well, but those require more time and investment on the part of the instructor (and frequently, the students).  The Change Up ideas are all small ways to incorporate active learning principles into your classes immediately.


Summer Peace-Building Symposiums

This summer, the International Peace & Security Institute, the Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna Center, and the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology are cooperating on two symposiums that will teach practical skills in peacebuilding. The Bologna symposium focuses on conflict prevention, resolution, and reconciliation, while the Sarajevo symposium is on post-conflict transitions. Additional details are here.

Written and Unwritten Rules

This is part 4 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

I have defined games as systems in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in measurable outcomes. Previously I discussed the artificiality, thinking about drawing students into the magic circle, and the different types of conflict we can build our activities around. Next  we have rules and outcomes will be covered in a future post.

Terra Mystica

Teachers know that it’s very important to give clear instructions for their assignments, though we don’t always spend a lot of time thinking about the best to make sure our students understand the assignments. Board game designers have thought a lot about this. As Rob Daviau, one of the most innovative designers out there, has noted: board games are probably the only form of entertainment that requires you to take a reading comprehension test followed by an oral defense in order to get to the fun. So board game designers are very interested in making sure people don’t tune out before they finish reading the rules. Here’s what they say is important about rules: Continue reading

Thinking about classroom problems in general

The other three-phase

Amanda’s excellent post yesterday on students not reading put me in mind of a very useful conceptualisation of classroom situations that I was taught in my training, more years ago than I care to remember.*

In essence, the conceptualisation suggests that there are three phases in our pedagogic practice, and our movement through them reflects our increasing confidence and ability: and they look not so different from Amanda’s options.

The first phase is to centre everything on yourself, the teacher. You are the sun and everything revolves around you. If students don’t get it, then it’s because you did a bad job; likewise, their successful learning is down to you and your amazing classes.

If you like, this is the rollercoaster phase, with rapid highs and lows, where the euphoria is mixed with a heavy dose of nausea.

It’s obvious that this should be the starting point, because you’re new to all this and you’re discovering your own powers: it’s a very human instinct to work from oneself, because that’s what you know best.

However, this model is not only emotionally draining but it also runs into the (usually quite swift) realisation that you’re not the only agent in the learning-teaching nexus. There’s got to be a different way of looking at things. Continue reading

My Students Don’t Read: Responses to a Classic Classroom Problem

All experienced instructors have had this happen to them: You assign an interesting reading that is pivotal to a topic on the syllabus. You emphasize to the students how important it is that they complete that particular reading, as it will be the basis of the next class session’s discussion. Walking into class, you smile, anticipating a smart, informed discussion on a fascinating topic, and ask a basic question to get things going. And then, the silence, and the signs: the blank stares, the eyes that won’t meet yours, the walls and shoes and notebooks that suddenly are the most interesting things in the room. Your smile drops as you realize the horrible truth: none of the students did the reading.

Quickly you realize it’s not entirely true: a small handful of students, the ones you can always rely on, tentatively raise their hands. Others may have skimmed the reading, or tried to do it just as class started. Still others pull it out as you ask the question, trying to do in 30 seconds what they need a concentrated 10 or 30 minutes to do. Despite this, the vast majority of the class simply did not do as instructed.

What’s the dedicated instructor to do?

I have been teaching for more than ten years, and this happened to me twice this semester alone. In one case, only one student out in my intro to IR class had read Thucydides’ short Melian Dialogue that IR teachers the world over use as an introduction to Realism—even though they had weekly reading quizzes on the material. In my intro to American politics course, none of them had read Federalist Paper #84, which outlines the arguments regarding the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution. In the moment when I realized that my students were not prepared for the reading-based discussion I had planned, I had a decision to make: how would I respond to their lack of preparation?

A few options immediately came to mind.

Continue reading