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

Fixing Health Care? A Simulation in American Government

Today we have a guest post from Josiah Marineau, an assistant professor of political science at Campbellsville University. He can be contacted at josiah [dot] marineau [at] gmail [dot] com.

For my Introduction to American Government course, I designed a simulation of the legislative process in which students are tasked with debating different policy options for the U.S. healthcare system. The simulation is intended to  familiarize students to a key policy debate in contemporary U.S. politics.

The simulation will last two weeks. The first week will be preparation:  explaining the politics of the U.S. health care system, the main options for policymakers, and how the simulation  will work. Students will be introduced to the rules used in Model United Nations to govern debate and voting on bills. Students will use materials I provide to write policy position papers that advocate for a given policy solution to the challenges facing the U.S. health care system.

The simulation itself will run in the second week, over two class periods. Students will use their policy papers as the basis for debate and will give speeches in class in favor of or in opposition to proposed legislation. I expect them to form coalitions with other, like-minded students, and draft a bill that is amenable to a majority of the class.

As part of the debriefing, students will write a two-page memo reflecting on what they learned, what surprised them, what worked and what did not, and why. This memo will be due in the week after the simulation concludes.

I will grade the simulation as follows:

  • Quality of the policy position papers — 40%
  • Level of engagement in the simulation — 30%
  • Two-page reflection memo — 30%.

I will share the results of the simulation in a future post.

First Impressions

Having wrapped up the first month of another fall semester, here are some reflections on this year’s incoming undergraduates as compared to those from previous years — based on a completely unscientific sample composed of the forty-four 17-18 year olds whom I’m teaching in two sections of a first-year seminar.

  1. Ignorance of basic technical processes continues to increase. This ranges from not understanding that electronic files have different formats to being unable to upload to a server any file, regardless of type. Or, in some cases, students recognizing the need to click on a “submit” button, but then not verifying that what they submitted was what they actually wanted to submit. (Resulting in a grade of zero each and every time.)
  2. When confronted by these technical challenges, students are more likely to react with learned helplessness, making my standard response of “figure it out”  even less endearing than it was previously. (Student evaluations for these seminars average a full point lower on a five-point scale than for other courses.)
  3. The immediate post-high school attitude that learning is a pro forma exercise in “tell me what I need to know” is just as common, if not more so, than it has been in the past. Few of the students start college exhibiting genuine curiosity about a world that is external to themselves.
  4. Male students demonstrate learned helplessness and lack of curiosity much more frequently than female students. It seems we are raising a generation of men who are at risk of living life as unskilled, low-paid, socially-maladjusted drones.
  5. Undergraduates are getting poorer,  more ethnically diverse, and less well-prepared. Although they perceive a college education as the ticket to a middle class existence, they have less understanding of what they have to do to obtain this ticket, and they are more frequently entering college with characteristics that make this objective much harder to achieve. For example, the more hours they expend on financially-necessary part-time employment, the less time and energy they have available for developing the habits and skills that would allow them to overcome pre-existing academic deficits. From the supply side of the equation, these students require greater amounts of financial aid and support services, making them more expensive to educate.
  6. Compensating for all of the negatives listed above is the fact that I am rarely faced with the sense of entitlement that can develop among the wealthiest and best-prepared students. They go to places like Harvard instead.

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.

Content Conundrums

Earlier this semester, our excellent library staff released results from a survey on students’ perceptions of textbook costs. Some of the findings:
  • 79 percent said they had not purchased a required textbook because of cost.
  • 19 percent said textbook costs had caused them to take fewer courses.
  • 84 percent thought that free, open-access textbooks benefit them academically, with 66 percent saying that they are “very helpful.”

I’ve mentioned this before: as a first-generation college student from a lower-middle class background, I am sensitive to the costs of college for today’s students. And I avoid assigning reading material that is terribly written because I emphasize the importance of good writing to my students. The vast majority of commercially-available textbooks — at least for the subjects that I teach — fail on both cost and writing quality. And though Open Educational Resources (OERs) are free, they can still be junk stylistically.

Sometimes I assign trade or mass market paperbacks. They are much less expensive than textbooks, and they do better at embedding concepts in a narrative context, which makes information easier for students to understand and remember. But their perspective can be very narrow, leading to rapid obsolescence, especially journalists’ book-length treatments of their field reportage.

Chopping paperbacks into assignment-sized sections can also be difficult. Contrast Evicted by Matthew Desmond with Poor Economics by Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo. The former is a brilliant 400+ page ethnography with a complex cast of characters, while the latter gives a concise chapter-by-chapter illustration of different principles in development economics. While I regard both books as extremely worthy, Evicted is just harder for me to use.

Often digital content allows me to bypass these problems, but I typically curate it myself. To avoid Error 404 Not Found and paywalls, I began clipping webpages with Evernote. Each course got its own Evernote folder. I would put the link to the appropriate folder in my syllabus. Recently though I’ve been noticing increased use of formatting and multimedia that Evernote — or at least the free version of it — doesn’t capture.

So I’m returning to my past practice of just embedding URLs in my syllabi. The majority of my digital content comes from publications like The New York Times, which has been around since 1851. It isn’t going to suddenly disappear. Plus the web archive is searchable, articles can be located without a specific URL. In effect the Times and publications like it have become digital repositories without third-party gatekeepers. And for students, a unlimited access subscription is far less expensive than a textbook.

The last option that deserves mention is a digitally-native web text, like the what’s offered by our friends at Soomo. Here the idea is a core text enhanced by additional readings, video, and interactive features. Curation duties are handled mainly by the publisher instead of the instructor, but content aggregation remains highly customizable. Production costs are lower, so students save money over traditional textbooks. Many instructors don’t have the inclination to create or collect all the content they need, and in this instance a web text is now often a better option than a traditional textbook.

Environment & Society – Call for Abstracts

Credit: Chad Raymond

Environment & Society has issued a call for abstracts on mega-projects:

Small is no longer beautiful. Small is out-dated, old-fashioned, inefficient and ugly. The future now consists of an ambitious series of massive plans and schemes for new infrastructure projects, beltways, roadways, railways, investment corridors, disaster-proofed cities and countries, carbon capture and storage, reforestation, wall building, migration fostering, terra-formation, space exploration, global sports events and so much more. The proponents of mega-projects resurrect modernist dreams of yesteryear, yet they offer utopian visions of an uncharted future. Although many of these mega-projects are still being planned or are in nascent stages, it is clear they have the potential to transform everyday life for many people and as a result they are likely to provoke resistance.

In this issue of Environment & Society we invite any papers which explore different aspects of mega-projects. This could include their environmental or social consequences, politics surrounding their planning and/or realization, and the visions and/or assumptions that animate them. It could entail exploring the organized collective opposition to these schemes, such as protest events, campaigns and social movements, or subtle acts of refusal. It could also examine the futures that mega-projects promise, their consequences and the alternative futures they foreclose. It could focus on highly visible lumpy schemes that are territorialized and driven by governments. Alternatively it could examine massive and far-reaching systemic changes in technology or social trends that reshape how large groups of people think or behave but which arise from consumer choice, political action and private entrepreneurship as well as state guidance. Continue reading

Recasting how you teach your discipline

Should we be dignified, or efficient? Or both?

Here at ALPS, we’re pretty open to new ideas, to questioning the assorted received wisdoms of the world.

So it’s always good to find examples from outside political science, not only because many of the things we talk about aren’t disciplinary, but also because it’s just stupid to think we have all the answers.

As a case in point, we might look to our little brothers over in economics. Over the past decade, they’ve taken a real battering because they seem to have utterly failed to model the world in any useful fashion.

A recent piece in The Economist pointed out, the most basic models that students get taught are often only caveated much further down the (academic) line, often after the point that many students get to. This leads to conventionalities in public discourse – trade as always positive-sum, for example – that simply don’t reflect the evidence or the state of the discipline.

In the febrile era since the great recession, students and faculty themselves have sought to throw out the approach taken to date and to build a new format.

That started with protests-cum-movements like the Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society, but has since matured into the CORE project.

CORE is a collective of faculty from various institutions, who have built a very extensive e-textbook, grounded in a fundamental different way of teaching economics. The challenges and issues are fore-grounded, rather than back-loaded, and there is a effort to invite discussion and debate, instead of presenting a fait accompli of theory.

As someone who never had any economics education at all, I’m really enjoying starting to explore this resource, which is meant for use by a wide range of users and is intended to be integrated into local teaching delivery. I’d really encourage to have a wander around the site too.

Part of me would, of course, like to just say “welcome: what took you so long”: political science has long accepted that there is contingency and conflict of interpretation of the world and has frequently used critical questions as a way into building an understanding.

But at the same time, it is refreshing to see how there is a project to re-examine so much of what makes economics the discipline that it has become. By contrast, political science has usually just stopped at the point of saying that there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat, rather than trying to bring those ways together. As the quantitative shift continues to work its way through the community, there is a risk that such diversity is attenuated or stifled.

I’m always in favour of heterodox positions: the perils of group-think and conventionality are well-understood out on our side of the social sciences, especially in a era of ‘outsider’ politics. But even I wonder whether and how we might ever produce an equivalent piece of work as CORE, just as I wonder what might have had to happen for us to want or do to produce it.