Getting some help in

Yesterday evening after class I had a long discussion with a student about the validity of different people’s opinions: the student felt that my opinion was worth more than that of his peers, because I was the teacher and “had more experience.”  This led into a rather “post-modern” (to quote my wife) discussion about the lack of objective truth and the value of all opinions.

I mention this because last week I took a group up to London to play a European Parliament simulation, at the EP’s UK office.  This is a development of a game I’ve played with students in Brussels, all organised by the EP.  Over the past years, I’ve found this has been an excellent opportunity to relate my class-based work to a more applied and specific context.  In addition, it has highlighted the value of expertise: Gergely Polner at the EP has been able to bring his extensive institutional knowledge to bear on the design of the game and its subject material.  Moreover, his network of contacts meant we were able to get a jury that included both EP officials and representatives from political groups, to give an insight that goes far beyond that which I personally could provide.  Coupled to some of the insights that the students gave into how particular issues might play out, everyone learnt something from the event.

The suggestion here is not that you beat a path to your local EP representation (helpful though they are), but to consider getting institutional buy-in from the organisations you might simulate: press offices abound; you or your colleagues have contacts.  It’s a relatively low-cost way for everyone to gain something useful (expertise, profile) and it underlines my ‘post-modern’ point about the value that different people can bring to the table.

Making the EU (a bit) simpler

A very recurrent comment from our students is that “the European Union is so complicated to understand”: and certainly, my impression is that colleagues across the sector rarely try to dispell this.  My opinion is simply that telling people something is complicated only puts up barriers to their understanding, so trying to develop a discourse about the ease of it all can only help.

With this in mind, I offer a small game that mimics many of the dynamics of Qualified Majority voting, as used in the Council of Ministers.  There are only ten players (although more can observe) and two issues, defined solely by numerical values.  However, the game does expose the various dimensions of power and the tension between individual and collective gains.  Playing it yesterday with students, we discussed how it was affected by their past behaviour in negotiations and about how the game would have run differently if there were several iterations and/or more opportunities for pay-offs (both of which would be simple to model in this set-up).  Certainly, it was rewarding to see how they managed to develop a negotiating framework that went well beyond the numbers on the sheet.

The game was purposed originally as a demonstration of the role of power in negotiations, but I’m going to be taking into my Intro to EU module in the spring, because I think it offers a different way into the subject and one that will help the students warm to it all, rather than shrink back in fear.

Promoting reflection

One of the more interesting aspects that has emerged from this year’s running of my module on negotiating politics has been the problematic nature of reflection on the part of students.

At one level, reflection is front and centre for them, since their assessment is based entirely on a reflective piece they produce at the end of the module, on their experiences in class and its relation to theory and academic literature.  To bolster this, I have given them opportunities for formative work, and I discuss this aspect with them every single week.

And yet, at the end of each session I end up having discussions with students about what they are doing and why.  Yesterday’s class was structured around a disarmament game that I use to explore trust in negotiations: teams represent a provisional government, the national army and three factions.  The game also has a faction-of-a-faction, who were left at one side of the room and other teams could decide what to do with them, if anything.  For 90 minutes, this team just sat and watched, with only one team even trying to talk to them.  At the end of the game-play, we discussed what had happened and I pointed out that this team would have attacked everyone else if the agreement everyone else had reached was followed through.

I suggested to the students that simulations tend to be rather predictable, in that they usually only include what they need to, so if an ‘extra’ group appears, then it has a purpose, so non-engagement is probably not a good idea.  Likewise, when I had asked them some weeks ago to set up Twitter accounts for the session on communication, no one had apparently thought through why I might have asked them to do this.

I left them with the observation that next week’s game, on power, will last exactly 30 minutes: as we’ll see, in this case it’s almost impossible to work out why that information is important, but I hope someone will come and talk to me about it.  And if they don’t, then perhaps we’ll have another learning moment.

Death and the Modem

As I sit here, surrounded by my desktop, three laptops, a smart phone and a new modem/wifi box, I wonder if it’s possible to become overly dependent on technology.  The scene has been necessitated by the death of the old modem, which had lasted a good six years, and the problems of getting its fancy-pants replacement to connect to my various devices: certainly the demands I make now of my IT are much greater than they were even just a few years ago.

The same has also happened in the classroom.  Powerpoint presentations are ubiquitous, as are laptops for students and assorted e-learning tools.  But the question of necessity was really brought home to me by today’s class on communication.

We started off with my twitter game, which again demonstrated the pitfalls of online media to the group.  But we then followed up with a very simple game that involved no more than some Lego and a sheet of instructions.  The game is a common one, where the group have to recreate a lego construction, but with only one person looking at the original and unable to speak, another person being the only one to touch the bricks and a third being unable to do anything except ask questions of the first.

My impression from the class was they appreciated the dimensions of communication and of teamwork as much (if not, indeed, more) from this little game as they did from the more ‘enabled’ twitter game.  Naturally, they are looking at somewhat different things, but sometimes we might want to think about simple ways to do things, not just the complicated ones.

Dipping into Podcasting

After many years of saying I’ll go it, I have finally taken to podcasting.  Despite having what I feel to be a generally positive attitude towards technology and a very good working relationship with our e-learning unit at the University, it was always something that seemed just that bit too much like hard work, both to make the podcasts at all and to make them of a sufficient standard.

The benefits have always been clear to me.  By clearing out a big chunk of passive consumption by students in classtime, I have more time to engage in active learning and student-driven feedback and discussion.  In addition, students get to consume my lecture at a time when they are more likely to be paying attention, and they can come back to it as often as they like, when they like.

Two things have changed to get me finally over the hurdle.  Firstly, the technology has become a whole lot simpler: I can record audio over a powerpoint on my laptop using Profcast, which cost a very reasonable amount for a single academic-user licence [sic], producing a MOV file that can either go to iTunes or (as in my case) to the University’s own Box of Broadcasts site. BoB lets me either stream the file, or have it to download, plus I’m able to restrict who can access it.  I can even embed the files into our VLE, so students keep their one-stop-shop for the module’s resources.

Secondly, my negotiating politics module has given me an opportunity to do this in a more focused way: I have a six-week block of classes where I want students to be just doing activities, with minimal input from me.  Last year I was appending a twenty minute lecture at the end of the class to talk about wider aspects, but these have translated very simply into short podcasts: I would feel it necessary to trim down an hour-long lecture for this type of delivery.

Naturally, there are some issues of compatibility and access, plus a need to work some more on linking the podcasts into the classroom sessions, but generally it’s given me the confidence to go and try this on a bigger scale next time.

Step aside, Spielberg…

It’s always with a certain reticence that I tell people about my one video on Youtube, both because I’m a generally unassuming sort of person and because I know it’s not a great piece of work.  However, I’ve reached the point in the year where it gets a dusting-down and is shared with my students.

The video marks a key transition point in my negotiation module, from theory to practice, from me teaching to them learning directly.  Based on a real-life experience of mine in Istanbul, it shows that even with a lot of knowledge about principled bargaining (not least from teaching it for several years), it is not always easy to apply that knowledge to actual negotiations.

Using a video allows me to do some things that would otherwise be very difficult to do.  When analysing negotiations, you typically need a considerable block of time to read the relevant materials and reflect, time which is in short supply in my case.  The alternative of having students engage in their own negotiation scenario similarly takes up a bigger block of time and I can’t be certain about what will happen (i.e. will it cover what I need it to?).  Thus, showing a video allows me to present my central point (the shortcomings of theory) in a time-efficient and focused way.  Moreover, as a novel teaching method (for all involved), it has consistently made an impression on students, who can recall the key points even at some remove.

It’s not something that I have made a habit of, since I think it really only applies in some specific contents, but it’s certainly worth thinking about doing, especially if you want to move students out of their habitual patterns. Technically, it’s very simple to put together and share with other. Plus, you can always disable the comments function.

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.