A quick check through the vellum parchments indicates that I’m now teaching second-year undergraduates for the first time in nearly a decade.
It turns out they are like any other group of students, albeit with the relatively fresh memory of taking my flipped module last semester.
More interestingly, I’m also teaching my first new module in a similarly long time: on European integration and disintegration.
This has posed two immediate challenges.
Firstly, that first year module was an introduction to the European Union, so how do I differentiate the two for my students?
Secondly, deliver the module at all?
My answer has been to work with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got are many of the raw materials that the previous instructor on the module very kindly left me (thank you, Roberta).
Rather than try to build up a module from scratch, I’m going to follow the existing model relatively closely this time around.
Partly that’s expediency but much more it’s because it’s not the way I would have tackled the subject.
If that sounds odd, then consider that much of the module deals with critical perspectives on the subject matter and I want students to see that I am tackling what might be nominally the same material in a fundamentally different way.
Yes, I could have wheeled out a bunch of classes that were essentially ‘more of the same’ as last semester, but I very much don’t want to do that.
Moreover, because it’s not my structure or activities, it forces me to engage more fully with the material, because I have to be confident enough to be able to help students learn it.
Again, the irony is that it’s exactly because I wouldn’t teach this way normally that I want to teach this way: I will learn something from the experience, both substantively and pedagogically.
As I seem to be saying to a lot of people recently, I have no monopoly on good practice, and there is always something new to be learnt.
Perhaps my most reliable observation to date on negotiations and teaching negotiations is that time matters.
You give students (or negotiators) a deadline and it has huge impacts on their activity: most obviously, it creates an ever-increasing social pressure to ‘reach an agreement’.*
That’s why it was really good to have spent this past weekend being shown that this is simply an arbitrary way of behaving.
I was running a workshop for faculty at the American University in Cairo, as a guest of their Department of Political Science (and supporting by funding AUC recieved from APSA), talking about active learning and simulations.
A big part of what I tried to do was to let colleagues try out activities first-hand, so they could really see the potential that each of them contained for their own teaching.
One of my activities was a crisis game: it gives not enough time to try and reach a conclusion, with (what I would consider) inevitable effects of the kind outlined above.
This time? Nothing. Zip. Diddly. Squat. Nada.
Every other time, there has been at least one person keeping an eye on the time, either from the off or mid-way through as they recall I’ll not letting them go on forever.
In the AUC case, not only was there was there precisely no acknowledgement of the passing of time, but even when I let them run on for an extra 5 minutes, there was still nothing.
We talked about this.
Largely, we talked about cultural norms. The group was almost entirely Egyptian, but with plenty of experience of living and working in Europe and the US. They suggested that time is treated much more flexibly (certainly, I was not really following my timeline for the rest of the workshop), so its constraining power is that much weaker.
For my part, I noted that failing to decide by a deadline is also a decision, in the sense of creating choices with consequences, so they and their students might reflect on how that plays out.
But still the main takeaway for me was that you really, really can’t assume anything when you teach, because it might turn out your assumption isn’t held by everyone.
To pick another example, what might seem fun or unremarkable to you might feel uncomfortable to others: consider the times you’ve encountered someone with a different of personal space to your own.
Of course, all of this is a valuable learning moment: it invites us to consider what else we might be simply assuming about the world and about others. For political science, that’s a crucial insight because of the profound differences in the fundaments of individuals’ worldviews, which generates political interaction and events.
Something for me to take some time to think about.
* – Yes, I know that’s not what good practice suggests you should do (you should instead by working out whether what you can achieve within a negotiation is better than what you can outside it). But it’s what people very, very often do anyway.
Like the devoted parent that I am, I went to a parents’ evening at my kids’ school last week, to make sure I was up-to-speed with things.
Among the other messages, there was one that got a lot of air-time. We were told several times that even a short absence could have a detrimental effect on academic performance, so parents and children alike needed to do everything they could to get in.
Now, it might be helpful to note that one of my children missed about a third of last school year, due to illness, so I have skin in this game.
Plus, during those absences, the school didn’t make a big thing about that detrimental effect, so I went to do some checking.
This goes back to research done for the government in 2015, which was press-released as:
Even short breaks from school can reduce a pupil’s chances of succeeding at school by as much as a quarter, research reveals today (22 February 2015).
The research, based on extensive pupil absence figures and both GCSE and primary school test results, highlights the importance of clamping down on pupil absence to ensure more pupils regularly attend school, and ultimately leave with the qualifications needed to succeed in modern Britain.
It shows 44% of pupils with no absence in key stage 4 (normally aged 16) achieve the English Baccalaureate – the gold standard package of GCSE qualifications that includes English, maths, science, history or geography and a language – opening doors to their future. But this figure falls by a quarter to just 31.7% for pupils who miss just 14 days of lessons over the 2 years that pupils study for their GCSEs, which equates to around 1 week per year, and to 16.4% for those who miss up to 28 days.
Let’s leave aside the dubious stat in the opening paragraph and consider why a school head reading this might feel that this proved attendance was essential.
Then read this from an education studies Professor, who points out attendance and performance are correlated, but likely not causally, with other factors such as more generic life-chances.
Now, I’m clearly going to want to hear what the academic says, because it gives me more hope that my child’s education won’t suffer too much, but it does raise a bigger issue for us in higher education: do students need to come to class?
My usual response to this has been a utilitarian one: classes are the easiest way to access the material and reflective space needed to do well in assessment, so if you’re lacking motivation, this is the least-cost option.
That’s not really a rally cry though, is it?
Instead we need to think about how we can make contact time a positive and enthusiastic option. If we can get students to want to attend, rather than simply feel they have to, then we’re likely to get better engagement, and thus learning.
At the same time, we need to be making sure that we help with incentives.
So for my course on negotiation, the assessment is reflective writing about the experiences the student has had in class, as contextualised by wider reading: hard (i.e. impossible) to do if you’ve not been in class (although I have had a couple of students try (and fail)).
The challenge comes in having to acknowledge that students have individual ways of learning, which may or may not fit with others’: I’ve seen several excellent pieces of assessment over the years from students who have been very largely absent from class.
That’s fine, although it does raise a question of whether other students suffer from not having that person in the class to stretch or challenge them. But if that’s not a learning objective, then it’s not a learning objective.
At the end of the day, this comes down to making sure we are clear about what we, as educators, want to achieve with our students. Once we have that, then we can think more about structuring incentives to engage, which then in turn might produce environments conducive to attendance.
But to start at the other end of that chain isn’t going to solve things by itself.
Last week I wrote up our gladiatorial format for conference panels: kind of working, but needs some re-thinking on a number of fronts.
This time, I’m going through the flipped format, which I think has a lot more immediate promise.
For those too lazy to follow links back, the original idea here was to try out some different ways of running panels, because they’re often, well, boring. Perhaps changing things up might improve that.
This is just like a flipped classroom, but for conference panels. The presenters were required to record a video presentation of their paper and upload it to a public location – YouTube was suggested: no limits on length, content or approach. The videos were then publicised by my and the conference organisers.
Then, in the panel itself, each presenter was limited to 5 minutes of speaking and a maximum of 2 slides. The idea is to free up much more time for interactive discussion than usual.
How it unfolded on the day
Compared to the gladiator format, no-one really seemed bothered by the format: the audience didn’t have to do anything different, and the presenters had done their heavy lifting well beforehand.
The flipped presentations were all ready a week beforehand, hosted on a variety of platforms: lengths ranged from 35 to 55 minutes, so well beyond what we could normally do in the panel. Links here, here and here.
We did have a late addition to our panel, who presented in the conventional 15 minute format, but we still fitted all four papers into 45 minutes (including introductions/explanations of the format).
Feedback from the audience
The audience seemed pretty happy with the format, both in the discussion and in the short survey I ran afterwards.
They liked that there was more time to discuss and that they could refer back to the full presentation later on (only a few had watched the presentations either in full or in part beforehand).
However, there was repeated pleas for this to have been made clearer beforehand: several requested links sooner. To put that in context, all panellists tweeted about it for a week beforehand; the conference organiser added links to the abstracts in the programme and mentioned it in the general emails sent out to all delegates; plus we told lots of people about it in person.
Which highlights that academics aren’t necessarily as different from students as they sometimes believe.
More consequentially, when asked to rate whether this format was more engaging and/or more informative than the usual format, the survey respondents were rather tepid, rating it only slightly better on both metrics. This compared to a much higher rating for the gladiatorial format, which might be down to the interaction of the latter, or to the substantive content (L&T for the gladiatorial; Brexit for this one).
Feedback from the presenters
This format needs planning by presenters: you can’t just rock up on the day and wing it [ahem].
Because our conference was early September, and I had annual leave beforehand, I needed to get my presentation together in July, plus think about how to do the short version in person.
I was lucky that my university has a lecture capture system that I could use on my computer: giving a mix of my talking head and my slides (OK, it took a couple of attempts to make it look as it should): colleagues didn’t have that and so either had to try some editing of bits of video, or just have a disembodied voice over the slides.
Unlike the others, I also decided I’d not recycle my slides into the panel presentation, but would make one new slide to capture the core idea of the paper. That worked very well for me, but it might have been tricky to do for others.
However, we all felt it worked, making us got to the point in the panel (even if that might be tough in such a short time). Yes, it’s clearly more work than a normal panel, but there was a strong feeling that it was more useful for us too.
Looking at tracking stats, I can see my presentation has been accessed over 70 times already, which is well above the number of people in the room. Sure, that tracking also says not many of them watched the whole thing, but I’m still getting a bigger footprint than usual.
So, does it work?
Yes, yes it does. With some tweaks.
If I did this again – and I really think I would – then I’d add some more guidance on all the elements.
The video presentations might have some (generous) time limit to them: 45 minutes seems plenty, especially if you consider you’d normally have 15 to deliver it. If there were some free video capture software – suggestions, anyone? – that allowed face-and-slide capture, then that would also recover a big barrier.
On the panel presentations, I’d reinforce the rule on time and slides, and maybe ask that people didn’t recycle slides from the video, in order to get them to consider how to pull together the main aim of the paper into one place. Maybe it’s not always possible, but it’s worth a try: I certainly got to think about my paper rather way because of it.
As for promotion of the format, I struggle to see what more could have been done this time. Perhaps the solution would be to have a series of panels in a conference using this, so that more people knew about it: maybe one per session, leaving a collection of papers for the conference organisers to promote and archive.
Of course, you then need a bunch more people to buy into it, but it’s not the most difficult thing. Maybe you offer some kind of inducement to encourage people.
The limit is that if everyone does it, why bother going to the conference at all? That’s why I’d pick-and-mix across substantive topics, so it show-cases the conference, rather than replacing it.
One option we discussed in Lisbon was using this as part of a virtual conference or workshop.
You could pre-record full presentations and get participants to watch ahead of a webinar debate/chat: that way you don’t have to keep people sitting on their arses for ages while just listening, but instead you can pitch them into debate quite quickly.
If you’re thinking about carbon footprints – and you should be – then this might be one way forward.
Now I’ve got a bit more space, and some data, I want to provide you with an initial write-up of each of them. Next week, I’ll go through the one that I think has more obvious potential – the flipped format – but today it’s going to be the gladiatorial model that gets the attention.
The conceit – and I think that’s the right word here – is that a presenter starts off with three minutes to present, then the audience get to vote (by app/website) on whether they get another three minutes. This repeats up to a maximum of 12 minutes per paper.
The options I settled on for each round of voting were ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Yes, but…’, which I suggested to the audience would be a way of signalling a willingness to give time, but with a caution to up one’s game.
We ran the panel with four papers – including me – ordered randomly immediately beforehand, and we had about 18 in the audience.
How it unfoldedon the day
The first bit of feedback from the audience was ‘why?’, as I explained the format to them, and that required a bit of an explanation about my intention to create a format where everyone was more engaged and where there was more interaction.
Each paper took a very different approach to the time issue:
A short one today, as I’m in the middle of the UACES conference in Lisbon, trying out my novel panel formats and I’m worrying about the tech side of it all: more on that next week.
On Sunday, we had our regular pre-conference L&T workshop, which was structured to let us discuss in small groups what and how we teach. The initial idea had been to focus this on different substantial specialisations, but it was evident that we all ended up working more general issues and questions.
One of the most useful thoughts in this was the notion that this kind of sharing is really helpful, because it lets us avoid having to do everything from scratch.
Rather than building from the ground up, the exchange of ideas can mean both the avoidance of things that don’t work and the opening-up of new vistas.
To take the latter, I got a couple of really interesting ideas from the discussion, that I’m now looking to see if I can implement with my students.
The first is assessing student’s lecture notes.
This could be as simple as just checking they’ve made such notes, or – as this is where I can see real potential – you could ask for those notes to be augmented with further reading/noting-making, or framed with some elaboration of how different elements hang together, or coupled to a reflective piece of writing.
The second is getting students to present each other’s work.
This forces students to think/act a lot more in making their work understandable enough for someone else to talk it through, and to appreciate how others interpret your work: did they stress what I wanted them to in their presentation?
Neither is such a radical idea, but they contain the core of some new things to explore.
This guest post comes from Cathy Elliott (UCL). A detailed instruction pack for this activity can be downloaded via the link at the end of the post.
One thing that students in my International Development class find intriguing is the fact that, in a previous career, I used to work for the British Government in Pakistan. Relatedly, one of the things I find difficult is students’ received ideas about what a job in international development like that might be like. When students join the class, some fall unreflexively into a discourse of “us” “helping” “them”. Others, meanwhile, bemoan unequal power relations in the world, imagining that a supplicant Pakistan is being pushed around by overbearing British development workers coercing them with huge amounts of conditional aid on offer.
The first position smacks of White Saviour attitudes and is at best patronising to local people and movements pushing for their visions of change. The second, meanwhile, bears little resemblance to my actual experiences of trying to spend relatively small amounts of money in ways that would be acceptable to the governments of both countries. Students also come to my class in search of solutions to global poverty and one recurrent grumble on my student evaluations is that they do not leave the ten week module knowing how it might be “fixed”. Meanwhile, I want them to question these sorts of technocratic attitudes that encourage them to seek the simplistic solutions.
In response, I have developed a 3 hour simulation game that
attempts to give a glimpse of what the world of international development is
actually like. It is based on my own experience of living and working in
Pakistan for three years, and of course other experiences are available. However,
I have found it a useful activity for getting students to understand some key ideas
from the literature, including the role of power and networks in policy-making,
the importance of powerful discourses including international goal-setting
agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals, and the open-ended,
processual and contingent nature of political and policy-making practices.
The premise is quite simple: for the duration of the class we
will be in the fictional country of DevelopmentLand, which bears a striking
resemblance to Bangladesh in every way unless something different has been
specified. The students (usually between 40 and 60) are split into small groups
and assigned roles with detailed descriptions. The groups are broadly as
Minister of Health and her advisory team
UK Department for International Development
group representing the country’s religious leaders
British consultancy firm
international maternal health NGO
local national maternal health NGO
group representing local traditional birth attendants
local NGO that saves lives by teaching children to swim
NGOs working on neglected tropical diseases
On their cards, students are given information about where they went to university, who they already know and whether or not they speak English. I try to organise the groups so that friendship groups within the class map onto networks that you might expect. Sometimes I also add a group of journalists.
The aim of the game is straightforward. The groups have to
persuade the Minister to work with them to develop health policy in the country.
Each group has to prepare a 5 minute presentation to persuade the Minister.
However – and this is the really important bit – the Minister can work with
more than one group if they are able to work together in a consortium. For
groups that decide to work together, they can also pool their time. This means
that if two groups work together, for example, they jointly get ten minutes to
present. A class-wide “win win” situation is therefore possible: there is no
reason in principle that all the teams could not get together and put a
proposal to the Minister that she and her team would find acceptable.
This has never actually happened, though, because – in
classrooms as in life – the game is rigged. The Minister and international
donors are preoccupied by meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. The
Minister is also keen to be re-elected and the group of religious leaders may
have a role to play in enabling or, crucially, wrecking her chances. Some of
the groups find that their very good cause doesn’t fit in well with her aims
and it is more challenging for them to find partners to work with. Some groups
don’t speak English or have dinner with the right people. And not all the
groups know everything about what is going on in the other groups. They can
usually find out by asking, gossiping and listening in but it often doesn’t
occur to them. Intriguingly, no-one yet has produced a crumpled fiver from
their wallet to grease the wheels, although I sometimes spread the mischievous
rumour that previous classes have tried this!
The groups spend about 90 minutes making what they will of
the situation and then they do their group presentations. Afterwards, they talk
among themselves about what they think will happen, while the Minister and team
make a decision, which they then present back to the group. The debrief session
afterwards helps students make sense of the experience and understand, with
guidance from me, how their experience fits into the broader theories we have
been studying, as well as my own experiences.
One thing I like about this exercise is that it gives
students an insight into ordinary everyday politics, as they are most likely to
encounter them. There is no dramatic threat about to overwhelm DevelopmentLand
and the always unrealised possibility of a win-win ending means that there are
no bitter enmities, only ordinary political rivalries and invisibilities. The
international donors are powerful, but so are the government and other local
players, and all of them are operating in a landscape of power relations that
they did not create and cannot reshape on their own. This gives students an
understanding of the crucial point explained by Maureen Mackintosh: “Deciding
what should be done is relatively easy. But achieving it requires alliances
with others”. The infuriating nature of having to work with
other people in conditions of unequal power is a great learning experience,
above all for students of politics. As one student put it: “It helped me
understand the process of politics, particularly the necessity of working with
people with different agendas”. Another made me happy by remarking: “It was a
challenge to cynicism – maybe things can
change, but there aren’t easy answers.”
Michael Buroway once wrote that “[o]ne cannot both play the
game and at the same time question the rules”.
This doesn’t seem right to me; surely it is only through playing the game that
we can understand the rules, their consequences and possibilities for effecting
change either working within them or by transforming them. Policy simulations
like this give us some tools to help students begin to play the game and to ask critical questions about the
rules that they probably could not access otherwise.
Mackintosh, M. 1992 ““Creating
a Developmental State: Reflections on Policy as Process” in Gregory Albo, David
Langille and Leo Panitch (eds) A
Different Kind of State? Popular Power and Democratic Administration
Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada: p. 44)
M. 1979. Manufacturing Consent: Changes
in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism Chicago: University of
Chicago Press : p.79
So last year, I mused on trying out some different types of conference panels, to see if we couldn’t be doing better than our usual two-minutes-at-the-end-for-a-long-winded-question-that’s-more-a-statement-actually.
Long-standing readers (and those who’ve just gone back to the original post) will remember I’m trying out two formats here.
Format 1: flipped panels
For our panel (106) on Monday on the EU27 and Brexit negotiations, we’re trying to use a flipped approach.
That involves we recording presentations that run as long as we like and posting online beforehand, then having only very brief one-sliders in the panel itself.
You can watch the efforts of myself (here), Natasza (here) and Petr (here) already now.
As you can see, we’ve all gone longer than the usual 15 minutes and I personally found it nice not to have to worry about the time-limit for this.
In Lisbon, we’ll have 5 minutes to present key points and then we go into a nice block of time for Q&A/discussion.
Format 2: gladiator time!
For our second panel (416) on Tuesday on Learning & Teaching, we’re getting the audience involved.
At the start, we’ll be getting everyone to access Poll Everywhere, via laptop or app, so they can vote.
The presenters will be given an initial 3 minutes to present, before the audience gets to vote on whether to give them another 3 minutes.
Presenters can get up to a total of 12 minutes, with each block being conditional on the audience being willing to go along with more of this.
We’re going to draw lots for the order of papers too, because I’m guessing it’ll make a while for the audience to get used to using their power and it only seems fair.
I’ve given a couple of notes to the presenters to reflect upon:
How do you balance getting your key points across with trying the patience of your audience? Logically, you make some kind of cliff-edges every 3 minutes, but what if your paper isn’t like that, or doesn’t have that kind of content? How much do you trial content and how do you spring surprises?
How do you structure any powerpoint you’re using? I can keep the results of the polling on my laptop, but again, what do you need to communicate when to the audience?
I’ll not say how I’m approaching these points, because I’m guessing there will be a variety of approaches, but I’ve found it much more thought-provoking/tricky/a pain for my content than the flipped model.
To back-up the panels, I’ll be asking for feedback from both audiences and presenters on the formats and I’ll give you a quick run-down on that post-conference, with a view to publishing at some point.
With that in mind, if someone else wants to try these formats at their event, then knock yourselves out: I’m happy sharing my feedback forms with you too.
So, as I go off to finalise that second panel, I will hope that you had a good summer. If you’re coming to Lisbon, then I hope to see you at these panels: please do either watch the flipped presentations and/or download the app.
If you’re not, then I’m sure I’ll be trying you about it soon enough!
Wonderfully, several parts of my professional life have seen recent instances of people being less than completely satisfied with my work, or that of my colleagues.
I say wonderfully not sarcastically, but genuinely, because it’s a great opportunity to question whether things are working or not.
It’s easy to get stuck into a rut, where you’re comfortable or feel you have the answers. Sometimes you need a bit of a bump to get you re-engaged.
(Of course, some bumps are a bit bigger than others, but hey, what are you going to do?)
Sometimes these things happen because you’ve not keep up your standards; sometimes because things you thought were explicit have become implicit; sometimes because things have changed.
In each case, it’s more useful that your response is open and enquiring, rather than closed and defensive. No-one likes being told that their work isn’t up to scratch, but that’s not a good enough reason to carry on regardless.
Importantly, you have to start by recognising that problems with your work isn’t the same as problems with you. Contain the issue to your actions – which you can control – rather than allow it to be a comment on your being – which you can’t.