A (very) positive sum game

This is Maxine:

Maxine David has just won the Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award here at Surrey. She’s also my colleague here in the School of Politics.

Why am I telling you this?  Because I also put in for the Award and (obviously) didn’t win, although I did get short-listed. All of which prompted someone to whom I’d mentioned this to enquire (and this is the key point of this post) whether I was annoyed not to have won.

The short answer is that no, I’m not annoyed at all.  In fact, it’s an excellent decision.

For too long, learning & teaching has been seen as a hobby in the UK, something of secondary importance to the main work of an academic (i.e. research). While that attitude remains (as it still does in many places), then L&T is all too often seen as zero-sum; that one person’s gain comes at a cost, either to their other work or to someone’s teaching.  As my enquiring colleague was putting it, why else would I be interested in L&T if not for the possibility of recognition?

Clearly, this is a very limited view and one that our School does not share.  Because L&T has been a fundamental strand of our work since our foundation nearly a decade ago, me and my colleagues have long understood that personal investment in L&T brings collective benefits, i.e. it’s positive-sum.  The simple fact that each of us is willing to try out new pedagogic techniques and to discuss and share them with each other creates two virtuous circles.  The first is between staff, who are constantly exposed to new opportunities and ideas.  The second is among students, who are similarly exposed and who can develop their own, more rounded learning strategies than in a situation where innovation isn’t the norm.

Thus, Maxine’s winning isn’t a loss to me at all, but a gain to the School: the project she will be working on in the coming year (funded by the Award) will involve several of our colleagues and will make a material benefit to our students, as well as educators elsewhere (through research publications). Moreover, to have half the University’s short-listed candidates come from a School that is at the smaller end of the spectrum still reflects the extent to which we all value L&T.  On a more personal note, I can’t think of anyone else who I’d rather have won.  Well done again, Maxine!

In Politics we tend not to go long on altruism as an element of political action, but in L&T it’s at the heart of what we do: helping someone learn is precisely about to help others get something for themselves.  If we forget that, then we need to take a good look at ourselves.

Crowdsourcing a resource

After an Easter hiatus, I’m back in the office, even if our students are still on break.  One of my activities was attending the annual conference of the Political Studies Association, whose kind funding allowed me to travel to APSA L&T last year and meet my collaborators here on the ALPS blog.  While waiting in the terminal at Belfast City airport for a delayed flight back home, I sketched out an idea I’ve been having for some time about building a resource for running simulations.

From the initial ruminating with colleagues and building up ideas, I’ve set up a website for this project, entitled “How to do Simulation Games” (not very clever, but at least clear).  As you can see, there’s not much there right now, beyond the structure.  My plan is to gradually build up material, as I have the time and inclination, so that there is something of practical use to colleagues, both in Politics and beyond.

The idea comes from an awareness that while there is a burgeoning literature on simulations, there’s still not much of the basic ‘how-to’ stuff that I find many people look for when coming to this pedagogy: it’s all well and good me writing a paper about immersion, but that’s no good to someone who doesn’t know what the basic building blocks of a simulation are (or might be).

As I say on the site, I welcome help since I know I don’t know nearly everything about the various aspects.  That help can be something very small and specific (maybe a game to upload), or if you want to jump on as a co-author type, then I’m cool with that too.  In the longer run, and depending on how this goes, there’s obviously potential for some more conventional publishing opportunity (again recognising everyone’s input), although that’s no more than a thought at this stage.

So if you like what you see, then drop me a line and let’s see where it goes.

More on Project-Based Learning

I’m still gathering information on project-based learning. My colleagues have approved a redesign of an interdisciplinary major, and the “culminating experience” course for seniors is changing from the traditional thesis to a research-based project. The course requires that each student’s project be problem solving-oriented, deliver a defined outcome with measurable effects, and be presented to the public.

Edutopia, a part of the George Lucas Education Foundation, has produced a very helpful guide on how to assess project-based learning. The guide is one example of how Edutopia is generating a tremendous amount of data-driven recommendations on active learning based on field testing in the K-12 environment. A simple example is the teaching of financial literacy to socioeconomically-disadvantaged students in Chicago.

Here, briefly, are the guide’s ten tips:

  1. Authentic, reality-based final products provide students with better ways to demonstrate what they have learned.
  2. Incorporate and assess “soft” skills, such as creative problem-solving and global awareness, to better prepare students for the future challenges they will face.
  3. When incorporating project-based learning into curricula, learn what the “big thinkers” in the field have to say about assessment.
  4. Because students will often be working on different tasks at different times, use formative assessment to ensure that students are mastering content and that students’ project development stays on track.
  5. Provide students with just-in-time feedback, in part to give them frequent opportunities to reflect on their reflecting.
  6. Teach strategies for effective collaboration, because students usually don’t know how to work well as part of a team.
  7. Embed assessment methods into the students’ use of digital tools; for example, an evaluated online discussion can result in greater participation among students who are reluctant to speak in the classroom.
  8. Provide students with an external audience; they will be more motivated to produce good work and will need to respond to challenging questions and criticism.
  9. Expand your repertoire of assessment methods and strategies through the free “do it yourself” professional development that is available on the Internet.
  10. Team up with colleagues — they are facing the same assessment-related demands you are.

Pushing for Answers

This is one of those very basic teaching maneuvers that its easy to neglect as the semester wears on.  It is easy, when either asking a question during lecture or in the course of a discussion, to let students simply talk.  The typical response is to either let other students respond, or for us to put their remark into context. Both have merits–the former creates a classroom that values freedom for new ideas, while the latter encourages students to speak, knowing that even a not-quite-right answer will be magically transposed into the correct answer.

But there are dangers as well.  In the unmoderated discussion, students may talk but not listen to each other, the dominant students may control the debate, or students may rely on personal experience, isolated cases, or flat out misinformation as evidence for their opinions.  In the case of the student who calls out an answer that we must mold, it encourages lazy thinking, with students calling out whatever pops into their head, not necessarily due to serious thought or analysis.

How to handle this?  There are many methods, but the one I’m rather fond of is to challenge the students on everything they say in a discussion.  When students give answers, I make them elaborate and explain exactly how their answer connects to the material.  I don’t let them off the hook either–I push, cajole, and help them to talk through the connections, rather than making the link for them.  I can’t emphasize enough  how frustrating this often is for students, and how frequently they want to give up in the middle of the process.  Other students will try to help.  But unless the student is really stumped, I don’t stop, and once they’ve actually manged to do it, they really feel a sense of accomplishment.  I’m also upfront with my students about why I do this–my job is to help develop their critical thinking skills, and my providing all the answers and saying ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ doesn’t  help them in that respect.

This method is not always appropriate (brainstorming activities, for example, would be completely cut off if you try this) and they do require a sense of trust in the classroom between students and teachers.  My students know that I am not mocking them or deliberately singling them out for embarrassment, but to help them.  They all experience it, so there is no sense that I am ‘picking’ on them.  And sometimes I soften the experience, by having them discuss a question in small groups so that group mates can work together to explain their answers.

This is one of the most basic ways of taking a passive class and truly making it active, and its applicable to any kind of class where you ever ask questions of students.  Sometimes the simple changes can really have a big impact on student learning.

Best Teaching Practices

Happy Easter holiday to all. The Easter Bunny in the form of our provost recently informed faculty about an an online guide to best teaching practices, published by the Office of Academic Affairs at the City University of New York. The document is also available as a PDF download at the same webpage.

The guide consists of recommendations broken down into three categories: presentation of materials, student assignment and testing, and strategies that students can use to enhance learning. Clicking on any single recommendation brings up a corresponding description of practices and relevant references. It’s all very user-friendly, concise, and practical.

Rocket Pitch

I’ve decided to use an exercise that I witnessed at the NEGMA conference on innovation — the rocket pitch. At the conference, competitors for venture capital had three minutes each to sell their ideas to the audience, who voted for their favorites using play Monopoly money.

I’m going to try this in my comparative politics course. Students have already given three group presentations in class. They’ve gone fairly well but sometimes their content has been fairly similar and I can sense students losing interest. For the remaining three presentations required of each group, there will be an element of competition. On days that presentations are scheduled, each student will be given a $10, a $20, and a $50 bill. Each group will have four minutes to present, with three minutes to respond to questions. After all groups have presented, I will call members of each group to the front of the room to individually vote on their favorites using the money (I’m thinking of simply laying down sheets of paper on a table, labeled “Group 1,” “Group 2,” etc., so students can see money piling up.)

I’ve informed students that they can distribute the money however they want, except that voting for their own group is prohibited. Members of the group that receives the largest sum of money will have two points added to their final average.

For those who are interested, this webpage has links to free print-your-own money.

Magic Genie: Quick Exercise on Politics, Distribution, Decision Rules, and Deaths

I did a quick exercise with my intro IR class yesterday that reinforced a lesson on the meaning of politics and its distributive implications, showed them how decision rules matter, and served as a jumping off point for a discussion about Mueller’s arguments about the overblown nature of the terrorist threat. The exercise is very simple, and only takes about five-ten minutes.

I split students into groups of four and gave them one of the following two prompts:

Prompt One

The magic genie of Governlandia is willing to grant you one wish!  Good for you.  Unfortunately, this wish is somewhat restricted—there’s no wishing for more wishes, for one.  In fact, the only thing she’s willing to let you wish for is to permanently cure a single ailment for the world.  Here are the ailments you are allowed to cure:

Terrorism (ends all terrorist attacks permanently)

Cancer (people can still get cancer, but there is a complete and effective cure)

Bumper Cars (deaths by auto accident become a thing of the past—impacts cause no damage)

Global Warming (the temperature will be regulated to prevent largescale climate change)

Nuclear Weapons (all weapons will be permanently disabled, including new ones built)

Bring one extinct animal back to life (T-Rex, dodo’s, wooly mammouths, whatever)

 Prompt 2

The magic genie of Governlandia has granted you one wish—a gift of 100 BILLION dollars.  Good for you.  Unfortunatley, this gift is somewhat restricted—you can only spend it on a handful of things, none of them for your own selfish gain.  Scientists estimate that investing the entire $100 billion in any one area will completely solve that problem; anything less, and the problem will continue.  However, you may distribute the money however you see fit.

Eradicate Terrorism

Universal, unlimited health care

Make Roads Completely Safe

Stop Global Warming

Destroy all Nuclear Weapons

Preserve all Existing Species from Extinction

Groups did not know that there were two different prompts.  When they had made their decision, they posted them on the board, and we discussed why they came to the conclusion they did.

I used this to note a few things.  First, no one gave any attention to the animal rights issues, which led to a discussion about the value of human v. animal life and how some issues can be seen as ‘luxury’ issues. Second, the method of decision making mattered: groups that were allowed to divy up money did so, but had a less intense discussion than those that had to choose only one policy area.  All the groups prioritized health care issues, and we discussed the criteria they use to evaluate the use of funds.  This led us to revisit the definition of politics as ‘who gets what, when, and how’ and segued into a discussion of Mueller’s work on whether or not terrorism is a threat and how people react to it.

Basically this was a neat little 5 minute activity that took no time at all to whip up and explain, but generated numerous discussion points for the remainder of the class.  If you try it out, let me know how it goes!

Getting out of the classroom (and into another)

Today I’m involved with various activities for schools and colleges: our School of Politics is organising a day of events on “Have we learnt the lessons of Afghanistan?” and  a bit later, I’m taking part in a webinar with the IES in Brussels on “Teaching the EU.”  In both cases, the aim is very much to get out of our HE classrooms and think about how we can make both familiar and new topics engaging and accessible for those completing their secondary education.

In the webinar, one of the techniques I’m going to discuss is timelines.  This is a very kinesthetic approach, allowing both large and small group work, as well as creating a very strong visual representation of what can be a confusing subject.

As you can see from the illustration, the group is charged with identifying key events and features, before then bringing them all together, so that they can see (literally) the bigger picture.

The idea is pretty self-explanatory, but it is worth dwelling here on why it’s a useful technique for pre-university students.  Firstly, it can cope with very different levels of knowledge and preparation, as well as group size (the small groups can cover just some of the elements listed).  Secondly, it integrates different elements and the work of different people very smoothly, so reinforcing the group dynamic.  Thirdly, because it requires movement and an unusual representation of the knowledge there is a clear focus to the session, to help keep their attention.

This is a technique I’ve tried with students up to Masters level, precisely for these reasons.  There is a lot to be said for using techniques from wherever we find them, rather than simply thinking that we know best.  School students are not intrinsically different from university students, so we gain nothing by treating them as such.

Live from the 1st Annual NEGMA Conference @ MIT Media Lab

I’m sitting in a large 6th floor room of the MIT Media Lab at the 1st Annual NEGMA Conference, “Innovative Solutions for a Brighter Egypt.” The conference is an application of active learning principles.

The conference is in part designed to support entrepreneurship, innovation, and social development in Egypt. Ten finalists, selected through an outside expert review process, are competing to have their projects funded by NEGMA’s supporters. Project proposals range from equipping small digital fabrication labs to vocational training for the disabled.

So far I’ve gotten three main lessons from the conference. First, when large sums of money are at stake, presentation skills are crucial. Earlier today competitors were required to pitch their proposals to conference attendees, who then voted on their favorites. People who botched their presentations were left at a distinct disadvantage.

Second, collaboration with peers has value. After the presentations, projects were workshopped among conference participants in small groups — in a process that’s very similar to what happens at the APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference. The finalists’ project proposals were strengthened for tomorrow’s presentations before judges.

The third lesson is that the unbundling of higher education will continue apace, whether we like or not. The traditional four-year, full-time, residential model of undergraduate education is dead. The technology of the internet is indeed making it possible for anyone to learn anything at anytime from anyone. As stated this morning by Wael Fakharany, Google’s regional director for Egypt and North Africa, every minute sixty hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube. Every day, 30 million devices connect to the internet in Egypt alone. Globally, Google handles 4 billion searches daily. This digital landscape is how people around the world will be accessing affordable and effective education — even in areas like vocational training.