More on human nature

Following on last week’s discussion about when do people learn, as against their nature, I found myself after class having exactly the same conversation with a student.  The assessment for my module on ‘negotiating politics’ is a reflective piece, where students consider their development as negotiators, in light of both the literature and their own experience through the weeks.

Today’s class was about principled negotiation, taking Fisher and Ury’s classic “Getting to Yes” as the key text.  The student was bemoaning the idea that it was necessary to analyse one’s own actions and that over-analysis was the likely outcome.  Indeed, he claimed that now we’d covered the model, everyone in the class was just going to stick to it and no one would really learn anything.

I reminded him of the second round of Victor’s card game, where a student had just ploughed on because “it’s nice to have more than one card.”  I then also remarked that even though I’d closed today’s class with a reminder about the centrality of good (or indeed, any) preparation in being an effective negotiator, I was confident that not everyone in the class would prepare, not even for the session in a fortnight entitled “preparation in negotiations”, which I have flagged repeatedly as requiring preparation.

The student took the point, but it was apparent that he didn’t quite buy it.  And it’s here that the experiential model will really kick in.  In a few weeks, I’ll be able to go back to students and ask them how the theory they’ve learnt has helped them and shaped their actions; not because I think it will have changed much, but because it won’t.  Likewise, even though they know they should be keeping notes to help them produce their reflective piece at the end of the module, most will not have been particularly assiduous about it.  By making them confront their natures, I hope to make it more likely that they will change (or at least modify) them.

Then again, I’d not bet on it…

Building groups

This was something I tried last week in my Negotiating Politics class, to start getting people (inter)active.  Since several of the activities later in the module require the class to break into smaller units, I randomly allocated people into four groups.

Group one then moved into the centre of the room (actually, the playing field) and were told to decide on a name for their group and a group coordinator.  Group two then took their place and were asked to do the same, but without speaking anything that was recognisably English: much grunts and pointing ensued).  Group three were not allowed to make any sound, or to point: once their remembered the existence of pen and paper, they were fine.

Group four were told to do the same as group one, but to also pick new group coordinators for the other three groups.  Finally, I randomly picked someone from the classlist to pick a new coordinator for group four.

As I asked the students afterwards, why do this?  Firstly, it broke the ice for the groups and highlighted the practice of the module, namely active and student-led.  Secondly, it started to let them see that negotiation is dependent upon various factors: communication, power, trust, preparation, and so on.  These are all themes in my module that I will be returning to in later weeks, but the sooner I can direct my students’ attention towards these, the better.  Of course, the whole exercise is endlessly changeable, but I find it a very useful primer.

Out of the classroom, into the world (or the playing field at least)

Yesterday was our first day of teaching in the new semester.  The late summer heat both made the classroom for my session on ‘negotiating politics’ too muggy and the playing fields outside too attractive a proposition.  So we decamped.

Changing your physical environment is great for reshaping the learning environment: sitting and standing in a field means that the conventional semi-static arrangements of the classroom have to go.  From a lecturer’s perspective, you can move much more easily around the group, and you are more conscious of how your voice carries (or not), forcing you to be porperly responsive to people’s engagement.  From the student’s point of view, it stresses the ways in which learning is a universal process, rather than just one that happens in classrooms, and it forces them to think much more about how to balance (sometimes literally) listening, note-taking and participating.

As the shadows lengthened in the afternoon sun, we played Victor’s infamous rock-paper-scissors game: the space made moving around very easy, especially when we played a second time and people very clearly moved away from the one person enthusiastically challenging people.  We even had someone hide behind a tree.

The British weather probably means I won’t get my students outside again (bustery rain, mud and laptops don’t really mix), but it really set the tone for the rest of the module.  So go try it.

From the mouths of babies (story books)…

Having finally been forced out of our Greek property so it can be sold off to help sort out the whole debt crisis thing, I’m back in the UK, enjoying the fine weather here.

As part of the long trip back, I had the pleasure of listening to a small number of children’s stories as audio books.  Being a good academic, always on the look-out for new ideas, my pleasure was only increased by thinking about these tales as learning resources.  The format has a number of advantages: they are relatively short and engagingly written; they set up open questions, rather than impose closed solutions; and they are easily shared among learners (pace copyright, of course).

The idea here is simply to use such stories as starting points for seminar discussions, as another way into some key political and philosophical questions. In my experience, beign stuck in a car for some hours listening to the same story several times over is an excellent way to start one’s own grappling with such points.

To take a couple of examples:

  • Is Fantatastic Mr Fox a fascist or a communist? At first glance, he’s neither, with his heroic deeds and putting one over the nasty farmers.  But his final gambit is to have all the creatures live under his rules and within his power: this collapsing of individual freedom under the guise of collective liberty speaks precisely to the heart of totalitarian regimes and offers students much scope to consider such ideas as the propaganda of the deed and othering.
  • What does the Reluctant Dragon tell us about the nature of rules in the International system?  Here we see a number of characters adopting social norms via a logic of approriateness to guide their actions, despite their unwillingness so to do, but it also suggests a higher set of objective values that must be complied with.  As such, it opens up a whole literature about constructionism and realism, as well as the more obvious aspect of hegemony and power.

I won’t pretend this holds good for all such stories (there’s very little to be drawn from Sandra Boyton’s excellent Belly Button Book, for example), but as a more accessible way into political theory and philosophy, it’s well worth a try.

PS: The kids’ birthdays have occasioned the purchase of more titles, which again (although I should stress, coincidentally) underline the idea here.  Treasure Island is an excellent description of the Logic of Collective Action, while Doctor Dolittle has some useful ideas about the importance of empathy and the perils of socialisation.

A is for ‘awful’ or ‘awfully good’?

One of the joys of the teaching process is that you tend to get your feedback at a point when you can’t really do anything with it until the next time you run the class. You might argue that students get the same deal, but that’s another matter.  So here’s a quick and easy way to do some mid-stream modifications, using an “A-B-C” exercise.

After a few sessions of your class, when things have bedded down a bit, take 10 minutes to do this.  Give everyone in the class 3 post-it notes (other brands are acceptable).  Ask them to put one idea (anonymously) on each note as follows:

  • One note on something that they want to Abandon in the class;
  • One note on something that they want to Begin;
  • And one note on something they want to Continue.

Once they’ve written them, they can post them on the whiteboard/blackboard/wall.  With all the notes, you can then do a quick review with them, grouping similar points together and giving your first impressions.

The next class, you need to come back with some constructive feedback, to show that it’s not just been an exercise in raiding the stationery cupboard. Think about what’s reasonable to change, both in terms of effort and benefit, and about the reasons for not changing something (rather than just dismissing it out of hand).

This all works surprisingly well, it’s timely and it shows students that you do listen to their constructive input.  Even if it doesn’t result in big changes, it’s still a valuable group-building technique.

The only word of caution is if you have a class that is not working in some major way: because this is quite public and open as a process, it might cause more instability than it solves.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…

This exercise comes from Resli Costabell, who of the most energetic and sparky people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.  It’s all about breaking down the barriers when you’ve got a group coming together.

When people arrive for the first meeting, they are handed a sheet of paper with a grid full of tasks (maybe a dozen or so).  These can range from simple (‘find out where someone went to school’) through to less simple (‘learn a new dance step from someone’ or ‘find something you have in common with someone’).  People have to mill around the room, getting the tasks done, each one with someone new (get people to sign off the sheet).  If they finish them all, they start again.  The winner is the one with the most.  Think of it as bingo, without the sitting down.

It’s easy, it’s fun and it’s a very good way to break the ice: we’ve used it with groups up to one hundred with good effect.  Compared to the ‘tour de table’ thing, it makes it much easier to remember people and to get beyond the standard things.

Getting the class ready and prepared

A slightly different one this time. Colleagues (around the world) often remark on the problems of getting students to prepare for class. To be frank, it’s not hard to work out why: the lecturer’s holding a class and can’t chuck everyone out and you probably get asked a question, or if you do, then you can wing it, etc., etc.

Here’s something that has worked for me and do fit into the whole notion of active learning. At the start of the semester, I get a pile of lolly sticks or sticks for mixing hot drinks from the refectory/canteen. On each one, I write the name of a student in the class. Then each week, I tell the students that I will randomly select two sticks the following week, and those people will each present a short (5 minute) presentation on the topic that I’m about to give them. The following week, I check at the start of the class that everyone has their notes: anyone who does not, gets to spend the class visiting the library, to then return just before the end of class to present what they’ve found. Then during the class, where the topic fits in, I pick a stick (or ask a student to pick one, just to show it’s totally random).

This has been an excellent way of focusing minds on some key points of the class; ensuring that everyone has some knowledge of the subject material coming into the class (so I can focus on further development); producing a set of revision materials for students to use in assessment; and generally helping students to avoid falling into the all-too-common trap of thinking that education is a passive exercise.

Naturally, students do have doubts about this. Mainly, they dislike having to do work that might not be used (I’ve had cases of students begging to be allowed to present), although they do come to understand the benefits listed above. They’re also not keen on the unevenness of it all: some people presented several times, others not at all. This is actually a key point: instead of only hearing from the prepared (and typically stronger) students, this methods makes sure you’re hearing from a more representative cross-section of the group, so you can pick up on any misunderstandings that might otherwise get missed. And it helps you to avoid accusations of favouritism.

Social networking still isn’t a good way to network socially

Following on from my previous posting about using Twitter in the classroom, here’s another activity to build on it, so students can see how the medium of communication can be as important (and constraining) as the message.

Once students have found each other’s Twitter accounts, the next task begins. Each student is given a slip of paper with their current location and some constraints (e.g. how much money they can spend, lack of travel documents, objects they have to take with them, etc.): the task is simply to agree a location for everyone to meet, at a time that is as soon as possible, given their constraints. They can only communicate via Twitter.

To make things more tricky than they already are, the information requires them to a) work out where they are (you might give out grid references, or a unique road junction), b) work out how to get to a meeting place (they might be overseas, without a passport) and c) work out how to share this with everyone with a view to finding a solution.

This is a very frustrating game, especially if you put a time limit on it.  Leadership becomes very hard to enforce and there are multiple conversations that struggle to overlap.  In this, it’s rather like many real-world scenarios, where the process hinders the pursuit of an outcome.

 

Social networking is not always a good way to network socially

It’s important to embrace technology, especially when you have the impression that you’re the only one who hasn’t done so.  So it has been with Twitter for me: just because I don’t feel the need to share details of my mundane thoughts with the world, doesn’t mean that it’s not without its uses.  In this case, for demonstrating that there are some things that are very tricky to do with it.

One of my class exercises is based on finding people in the Twittersphere.  Students are told to set up an account and familiarise themselves with the service: never assume that they already know this.  In the class, the task they have is to sit in silence and find all the other people in the room on Twitter: no talking, no notes, no emails – the only place that they can post material is on their Twitter feed. Once they find someone, they have to follow them.  When they have found everyone, they raise their hand.

What quickly happens is that students realise they lack the necessary information, notably who else is in the room (unless you’ve got a smallish group who know each other pretty well) and how to find out where other people’s accounts might be. It also requires everyone to know how to pull information from elsewhere (e.g. the classlist on the intranet) and how to push out useful information from their feed to help others find them (e.g. hashtags).

This is a great way to highlight the prior conditions for communication and negotiation, i.e. knowing who you’re communicating with and how to reach them. It’s also a good base for another game I’ll tell you about shortly.

Doing nothing

One of the simplest games to organise (if not play) is one taught to me by David Jaques, a man of great experience (and greater nerves).  It just involves clearing the teaching room – pushing chairs and tables to one side – then sitting yourself in a corner and waiting for the students to arrive. And then… well, that’s pretty much it.  Once the students arrive, you do not talk, move or engage with them at all. You just leave them to their own devices: whatever happens, happens.

Why would you want to do this? The game is an excellent opportunity to drive reflection on the role of power in its various forms.  Typically, the students don’t know what’s going on: they look for purpose and structure and generate it (arguably akin to Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos).  I find it a very useful corrective to the usual problematisation of power that we find in political science and IR – too often we focus on what happens when there is too much power, rather than talking about the necessity of at least some.

This shouldn’t distract you from the difficulty of playing this: it took me three years to dare to try it, for the simple reason that it is so unbounded.  Indeed, the first time, I felt it necessary to pre-warn the students it would last for 30 minutes, for fear that they would just head to the nearest bar.  They didn’t, but instead set out the tables and chairs again, then tried to get me to engage with them and riffled through my paperwork.  They also started to have discussions about why they might be doing this and what they could learn from it.

In the end, this is a game that leads where it leads and everyone explore a very novel environment. So try doing nothing sometime.