The Brand New Subway Game

nyc-subway-mapFor anyone teaching geography, urban planning, or public policy, the Brand New Subway game is a fun digital tool. Created for a competition in honor of the book “The Power Broker,” it allows players to design New York City’s subway system. Players can create an entirely new system from scratch, or modify past, present, and future systems. The game also includes an option for creating subways from scratch for other U.S. cities.

Players get three kinds of continuous feedback on their designs:  the price of a single fare, the average weekly ridership, and the overall rating of the system. The overall goal is to design a system that attracts the largest number of riders and efficiently gets them to where they want to go at the lowest price. The trade-offs between ridership, operating cost, and system quality make the problem very difficult to solve.

The game’s user interface is fairly easy to figure out and players can save works in progress. A simple way to use this game: have student teams compete against each other to build the best subway. Include as part of the competition a presentation where each team defends its design against questions from other teams.

A Quick Exercise on Confirmation Bias and Hypothesis Testing

This neat exercise featured on the New York Times takes a few seconds to play and includes a neat set of examples of how confirmation bias impacts government policy and corporate America.

Basically, you are presented with 3 numbers in a sequence, and asked to guess the rule that governs the sequence. You can enter in any 3 numbers you like, and the system will tell you whether or not your sequence follows the rule or not. When you are ready to guess, you enter it in but you receive no second chances. Apparently 78% of people make a guess without getting a single ‘no’–and most get the rule wrong.

The example in the NY Times is ‘2, 4, 8’. A number of possible rules could come to mind–must contain multiples of 2, or even numbers, or that the number doubles the one before it. The actually rule in this case is even simpler: the number must be larger than the one before it, meaning that ‘4, 8, 16’ works, but so does ‘1, 10, 3593’.

They don’t mention it in the article, but this exercise can adapted to teach hypothesis testing. Used in class, you can put the sequence on the board and have students suggest other sequences, which you then judge as either following or not following the rule. They have to use this information to come up with the right answer.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because one of the very first entries on this blog was about the board game Zendo, which does precisely this, only with physical pieces rather than numbers. I still use Zendo on day 1 of my methods class, and find it a really useful tool for teaching a variety of methodological skills. This numerical version is a great, easy activity to pull out for a quick fix on helping students with their logical thinking.

Modelling a mess

Some Greek misunderstanding about having a meal break

One of our perennial themes here at ALPSBlog is the notion of learning from learning, the idea that even when nominal objectives are not achieved, there’s still something (much, even) to be learnt. I get you to try and build a 20m bridge across a lake, using only tissue paper, you fail, but get something from the experience none-the-less.

This past week I was asked (jokingly, I hope) whether I could capture the negotiations on the Greek bailout saga. I’ll assume you’ve heard about this, even if you didn’t follow the details and that, like me, your over-riding impression was one of a chronic failure to find constructive or timely agreement between the various parties. The Onion has its own drole simulation of the forces at work.

Now this is different from the learning from failure model in that it appears to be a situation where failure to find some agreement is not an acceptable option and where all the good options are excluded and all the remaining options come with big costs. Let’s call it a messed-up situation that only gets worse over time.

Now this is really interesting to explore with students, both as a specific case and an example of poor negotiation. As a case-study, the Greek crisis touches on democracy, European integration, party politics, macro-economics and a bunch of other big social science issues: any simulation would be a great entree into these. As a negotiation format, it brings together an interesting combination of domestic and international actors, with varying degrees of resource (and legitimacy) in an environment where rules are highly flexible (which means you could capture much of the fluidity in a classroom).

However, the big question is quite what you want to capture in a simulation.

If the main thing is the inability to find a lasting solution, then you immediately hit an issue with the time and space constraints of the classroom: neither your students nor your university will let you have a simulation that drags on for several years. The only option here would be to have a game where resolution was fundamentally impossible, and each new cohort of students would simply play during their allotted time, to reach a new conditional outcome. However, that comes at a price to the visibility of the whole sequence.

If the aim is to highlight the lack of good options, then it becomes much easier. A few years ago (i.e. nearer the start of the Greek crisis), I wrote a game about austerity politics, modelled very much on the Eurozone’s travails. This game hasn’t got a good outcome (in the sense of optimal for most players), but it could be extended further, either by adding more domestic political constraints/challenges or by creating an external IMF-ish role to make it even more painful. The game already has rounds, so you could just keep on pushing this on, so that everyone get’s even more tetchy with each other.

A third option would be to focus on how the unstructured nature of the negotiation environment matters. Students could be given the task of trying to design a more formalised structure for the participants, with roles and responsibilities, in order to help them see how the different parts fit together. This would then be a critique of the real situation and a way into the underlying tensions.

This last is something that I’m tempted to try with my students this autumn, not least because they will have to learn how to organise themselves in order to be able to discuss productively how others should be organised. Since I’m aware that my students do read these posts, I’ll say no more, other than I can see several ways that they could do this, to better or worse effect.

This last point brings us back to the main issue, namely of identifying your learning objectives. That’s not just true of this, but of all your learning activities. Once you know where you want to end up, the path to get there becomes that much more clear.


In case of emergency…

Thanks for the various feedback on the three streams idea: I’ll be posting more about it next week, when I’m properly back in the saddle/office.

Sadly, absolutely no photos exist to illustrate this post. At all.

In the meantime, I thought it would be good to write a quick piece about covering your bases in the classroom, when things don’t work. This is a bit different from learning from failure, which primarily revolves around failures to reach the nominal class objectives. Instead, I’m talking about when things go more broadly belly up.

These kinds of failure fall into different categories:

  1. Technical failures. If the projector doesn’t work, how screwed are you? Ideally, there’s someone you can phone to try and fix it, but if that’s not an option, can you adapt your class to run without any slides: unless you’re putting a lot of data into the slides (which you shouldn’t be), then you probably can, although the experience it likely to remind you of how much of a prop those slides can be: remember you can always email out/post slides after class. More mundanely, your room might have a whizz-bang computer pod, but you might want to take along your own laptop, just in case.
  2. Rooming failures. Usually you know what sort of room you want/need, but timetabling can’t always oblige and you might have to be moved around. Can your class survive a move into a raked lecture theatre, when you’d planned for a flat seminar room? Again, it’s usually not a huge problem, but some thought about such things beforehand probably makes sense: it might even throw up some interesting ideas.
  3. Student failures. My good colleagues have covered much of this, especially the failure to prepare or to act as predicted. Here, I’m thinking more about what happens if half the class doesn’t show up, or all but one fail to show up: I have exactly this second scenario occur earlier this year, for a group exercise, which posed some interesting challenges and hasty improvisation. However, we got something working (partly by removing to have some liquid refreshment): smaller numbers is much less of a problem then you might think because you can start to tailor content more closely to needs and become more interactive. A bigger (and rarer) problem is when a whole bunch of extra people turn up: can you fit them into the room and do something useful with them? Snowballing is a good way out of this one.
  4. You failures. As a keen reader of this blog, this shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s still reasonable to talk about this: we have all messed up at some point. My personal nadir came as a teaching assistant when I found myself sprawled on my bed, still clothed and drunk from the night before, 20 minutes into the morning class I was supposed to be giving to the students I’d been out drinking with the night before. Suffice to say, it wasn’t pleasant for anyone involved. Let’s just say that I speak from experience when I say that some judgement might be exercised in such situations. Aside from such catastrophes, can you cope if you leave your teaching notes on the bus to work, or if you have four hours of class back-to-back? Knowing your breaking points is important if you’re going to be able to handle them (and, ideally, to avoid them).

This is be no means definitive as a list, just something to get you thinking about what you really need to make your class work. Sometimes you get hit from different sides at the same time, sometimes some promised help doesn’t materialise.

For me, the important thing I’m taking from writing this list is that usually you can cope, if you keep your head and prepare to run with something a bit different. And that’s another great reason not to get smashed out your head the night before.

Building Blocks

Twine BallsHave you ever organized an entire course around a single type of simulation? I decided to do exactly this after hearing Nick Vaccaro discuss the use of digital interactive texts at the 2014 TLC. These texts, which are structured like the choose-your-own-adventure books that some of us read as children, are built with Twine, an open-source software program.

In a new first-year seminar, I’ve assigned three non-fiction books about which teams of students produce Twines. I rotate students into different teams for each book, which means that at three points in the semester they assess group dynamics and evaluate each other’s performance in their teams. These worksheets derive from my initial attempt to facilitate team collaboration with in-class writing exercises and so far they seem to be working as intended — as mechanisms for student self-reflection. On the days that teams’ final Twines on a book are due, each team scores another team’s work according to a rubric, which saves me time.

Overall the seminar is organized to function as a meta-application of its topical content: decision making during disasters. Although no team has suffered the equivalent of a civil war or tsunami, there are a handful of students who rarely say anything in class, whether to me or their classmates. Having announced at the beginning of the semester that what one gets out of college is a function of what one puts into it, I made the deliberate decision not to obsess about their lack of engagement with the social aspects of learning. In this particular case, it’s an easy decision to make: individual writing assignments account for a large portion of the final grade and the students who don’t talk also don’t write, or they write very badly without any effort toward improvement. If they aren’t interested in learning how to learn, there is not much I can teach them.

Can we do all our learning & teaching using Lego?

Off the back of the great response to my post last week on The Lego Movie (apologies again to Borja Garcia for ruining his enjoyment of said film), I have obviously returned to the subject, albeit in a slightly different way.

While searching for the official movie website, I stumbled across Lego Serious Play. ‘Stumbled’ here should of course be understood as ‘spent ages browsing the online shop, buying a kit, then browsing some more.’ That box has now arrived, so the next step of my investigation continues.

Of course I have even more Lego on my desk. Don’t you?

Essentially, LSP is a system for promoting team interaction and creativity, using the bricks to allow people to visualise and manifest their ideas in a way that lets them explore new ideas. That’s the website’s take on it, anyway.

I’ll freely admit I’m not so sure about this, not least because I’ve still to see it in practice, but I’m willing to have a bash at it.

As readers with long memories might recall, I’ve been using Lego in the classroom for a long time. Some years ago, I made a video explaining different voting systems, using Lego squares, because it made it all much easier to visualise. Similarly, my negotiating class get to use Lego to explore the difficulties of communication, because it allows for very subtle usage.

Whether and how LSP might fit into all this is still unclear to me. The core development attribute seems to be about creativity, which does not easily fit into an applied module in a degree programme. That is actually rather a surprise to me – and probably a topic for another day – but it’s meant in the sense that creativity is a cross-cutting skill, so probably belongs in an early phase of a programme. Moreover, students rarely remain with the same group for any problem beyond one module/course, so even if team skills are developed, then some of them are lost as the group breaks up.

But even as I write this, I recall that I do have one group of students who will be together for a long period and – additionally – will be able to work as a single group: the first cohort of our Liberal Arts and Sciences programme, of which I am director and teacher for the first compulsory element.

My plan then is to use LSP to trigger a discussion about disciplines and about their relationship with each other. I’m not going to get into details just yet, since I’d like to try it out on them first, but essentially I’m using the Lego as a way into the subject, to distract them for the weightiness of it all.

Distracting students is something I really like doing, albeit with care not to get too distracted. Whether it works remains to be seen, but I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy the journey.

To come back to the question in the title, obviously we shouldn’t do ALL our teaching using Lego, but if we can recognise the value of multiple paths to learning and scope for using everyday objects to create an environment for problematising and challenging students, then that can open our eyes to large new areas of pedagogic practice. In essence, Lego is a means, not an end, and we should never lose sight of that.

Student Autobiographies

Today we have a guest post from Justin Rex, Senior Lecturer, Irvin D. Reid Honors College, Wayne State University:

One fundamental question that underlies many political debates is the extent to which individuals are in control of their status in life. To what extent are individuals a product of their own choices and to what extent are they influenced or controlled by larger forces like political parties, corporations, class, race, or gender? One’s answer to this question goes a long way toward explaining one’s position on welfare, immigration, healthcare access, and many other issues.

Justin Bieber BioStudents are often unaware of their own answer to this question. Frequently, their attitude is a reflexive, uncritical one and they struggle to view the world from a perspective different than the one already deeply ingrained. The problem is then how we as educators can get students to more explicitly acknowledge their own perspectives and to learn to see from alternative ones so they can make a more informed decision about their core values and political preferences.

One solution I created for my Introduction to American Government class is to have students write two versions of their autobiography. These can be short, 1-2 paragraph assignments completed at home or in class early in the semester. The first autobiography is written from the perspective of individualism. This version is the Horatio Alger story of their life, focusing on the good choices and hard work that led them to where they are today. Next, they write a structural autobiography. What factors outside their control helped them get where they are, such as their family, school, and socioeconomic status? Once students have completed their autobiographies, I ask them to share brief versions in class. As more students share, we begin to list commonalities. This list serves as a good introduction for these contrasting ways of seeing the social world. A good way to get students to think about their own values is to ask them which autobiography best explains their life.

This assignment is not a solution in isolation. To be useful, I refer back to it often. For example, when we discuss political ideologies, I ask students to draw connections between various ideologies and their autobiographical perspective. Through discussion, we are able to make the connection between classical liberalism and their individualist autobiographies the connection between socialist ideologies and their structural autobiographies. My students also complete a semester-long service learning project on a public problem of their choice. As students reflect on the causes of a problem like poverty, it is useful to have them consider the extent to which individuals, social structures, or some combination thereof are the cause. Their answers helps shape the solutions they ultimately recommend. Also, the assignment helps them think critically about individual and group efficacy for changing the social structures that contribute to the problem.

Justin can be contacted about the above assignment at justin.rex[at]