Simulations for students, or students for simulations?

One of the big topics of debate in the Simulations I track at APSA’s TLC in Long Beach  was about making simulations work for students. For many of the people around the room, this meant fitting the students into the most appropriate roles for their personality type, or adjusting the simulation to match the range of types.

I can certainly see the value of this approach. It makes it more likely that the simulation will run as anticipated, especially when it requires student buy-in – via their preparation and participation – to work: as one panellist said, it’s no good having a debate if the student doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Similarly, with the relatively small group sizes that most people were working with (in the 10-20 range), there was much scope to build in elements that reflected particular expertise: the presence of two communication majors in one simulation on presidential debates allowed for the development of an extra line of activity that would have been very difficult with pol sci students.

This was best encapsulated when I asked Michael Lyons  – whose congressional sim is in its 30th iteration – what would happen if both party leaders were weak/shy. Michael looked rather horrified at the thought and then said it would descend into chaos.

Maybe it’s just me, but I actually really like the idea of chaos.

One of the great pedagogic strengths of simulations is that there is as much – indeed more, if we follow Amanda and Nina’s line – to be learnt from failure as there is from success. If a lecture is poorly done, then students won’t get anything from it, but if a simulation doesn’t run in its anticipated path, then that is a powerful learning opportunity for everyone.

Let’s take an example to illustrate.

In our TLC workshop (resources here) Victor ran his World War II sim with the group. Despite having done this many times with students, the group can up with a different outcome to any other: after some discussion, we agreed that this was because the collective knowledge in the room on the limits of realist approaches to war and peace was far greater than would be the case with students, hence decisions were made with a forestalling of anticipated responses. Victor learnt something from that, as so did the group. Win-win.

Likewise, I have always been happy for my students to fail. I’ve had three full days of negotiations end up with nothing agreed, but still my students engaged with, and reflected upon, the reasons for that, even if it was deeply frustrating (perhaps because of that).

If we cleave to students’ proclivities or personalities (and I’m not even sure I’m too happy about the whole notion of learning styles that’s bound up with this), then we will have safer simulations, but also simulations that are less likely to have that learning through failure. In the case of Michael’s congressional sim, there would be chaos, but then students would start to recognise the reasons for that and try to address them (maybe by removing or bypassing the party leader), then in turn seeing that leadership is not the only barrier to finding majorities in Congress.

Yes, it’s messy and awkward and (occasionally) painful – not to mention the scope for people saying ‘your sim failed’ – but actually sims cannot fail in those terms. Failure is usually a valid outcome (certainly in most political topics): we only have to open a newspaper to see real-world actors failing all the time. As long as we can reflect with our students about why we fail, then we actually win, and that’s got to be a good thing.

Teaching and Learning, Gangnam-Style

You would think since all of are here together, and four of us in the same room, that at some point we would have discussed a live blogging schedule–or even that we intended to live blog.  I guess we are just a spontaneous bunch, us ALPSers.  Take Victor, for example: he promised to do the post-track summary with an interpretation of the PSY song Gangnam Style, but chickened out at the last minute.

I want to echo the comments made by Simon and Chad though about how valuable this experience can be.  TLC is such a great space for talking about teaching and doing research on teaching.  The track style really encourages collaboration both at the conference and beyond.  Questions get raised–why don’t we have good processes for sharing resources for our classes–and efforts are made to solve them (this blog is one of them, but certainly not the only one).  In the Sims and RP 2 track, there is a culture of constructive dialogue rather than attack and tear down.  Its a safe space to talk about what we are doing and push each other to do more.

The highlights for me have been the short-course on Simulation Design and the socializing.  I can’t judge how effective it was for the participants, but it was fascinating watching my colleagues teach, as all of our styles are vastly different.  We definitely want to revise the course and try it again in the future.

As for the socializing, it is those interactions where I generate new ideas for pedagogical research.  Some of the most valuable professional relationships I have have been formed at TLCs past, and many of them started as random conversations in the halls and bars of the conference.  This year I got the added fun of introducing people to Innovation, one of my favorite card games.  I am trying to think through a way to apply some of the mechanics in that game to educational games for international relations, and playing the game as an effort at crowd-sourcing some solutions.  While we did get some movement on that front, the real joy here was utterly trouncing Simon–twice.


It’s the last morning of TLC, but I’m not going to be there because of flight commitments (and I’m sulking about getting beaten by Amanda in Innovation last night). As last time, it’s been such a rich experience that I want to start working through the many points I’ve built up already now.

However, the first thing is to echo Chad’s point that is has been immensely gratifying to meet so many people who read this blog. I’ll admit, it’s a bit (i.e. a lot) creepy to have someone you’ve never met before turn around, their eyes widen and then whisper “it’s susherwood!” in a general air of disbelief – but it’s also really cool.

From my perspective, as the old world anchor of the ALPS group, I don’t get to interact in the same way with them (or you, our global audience notwithstanding) and so most of my contribution comes from the little conversations in my head. To have time and space to talk to a room full of people is amazingly helpful for me.

It’s also just so good to know that people read the stuff we do, because we simply don’t get a sense of that otherwise (well, I don’t, at least). Several people have said to me and the others how useful and/or stimulating some of our posts have been and that’s great, but also a bit frustrating, because I know I would like to be in on those conversations you have. The reason is simply that even with the work we’ve done, we’re still learning too and it’s in the interactions that we can advance our practice.

A meme recently, indicating how many years this joke has been going on already

So please do comment on our posts and/or volunteer entire posts, since it can only help us all. Those of you we met will know that we don’t bite, that Chad really does have a wife, that Kim Kardashian memes don’t always travel well and that we struggle to organise a meal out together. Only you can help.

In the coming days/weeks, I hope I can build on some of the conversations and thoughts I’ve had here in Long Beach. These are going to include (you’ll note I’m doing what I did last week with building in commitments):

    • How far should we design simulations to the specific characteristics of students, as compared to pushing them out of comfort zones? (following the Sims 1 track);
    • What do we need to know in order to successfully share a simulation? (Amanda);
    • The importance of affective buy-in as an outcome of simulations, alongside improvements in assessment performance (Marsha Lyle-Gonga);
    • Simulations as a reflection of designer preoccupations (Michael Lyons);
    • Reality versus abstraction in simulation design(our TLC workshop);
    • Potential new simulations on the EU (Amy Forster Rothbart), preparation and fantasy drafts (Dave Bridge) and collective decision-making (Taiyi Sun).

But you can and should ask us to address points too: we certainly don’t know it all and there’s plenty we don’t even think to question or discuss.

So thank you once again for making this worthwhile and we look forward to hearing from you all soon. And not just “Susherwood…!”

What Is Political Science

Michael Brintnall, APSA executive director, talked to TLC attendees earlier today about the need for those who teach politics to act with a disciplinary voice in shaping the undergraduate political science curriculum. Historically, decisions about what a student should learn about the practice and analysis of politics have been left to individual departments and faculty. However, our students are increasingly cobbling together their college educations from a variety of institutions and professors. Without systematic agreement on what constitutes a minimally sufficient baseline of political knowledge, it’s more likely that students will leave college with significant gaps in their understanding.

I find this subject particularly relevant — I work at a university in which political science majors are not required to take a course in comparative politics or international relations. Since majors aren’t required to take these courses, many of them don’t. I can guess that similar situations exist at other institutions.

Game Saturation?

In the mix of day two at TLC 2013. Hundreds of amazing ideas and new games to play. Nevertheless, we are 48 hours into the sims marathon and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.. winning & losing, grading & assessing…. the exhaustion leaves me with a single question…

Is it in our specific intent to convert so many to active learning that each class day for our students is entirely about games, simulations, critical thinking, development of problem-based learning…. is there a chance we could over-saturate them?

Putting your money where your mouth is

One of the more useful realisations in my professional life has been that my practice often advances best when I put myself in a somewhat awkward position. Thus, by committing to a conference paper, for instance, I lock myself into producing work that otherwise might stay little more than a latent idea in my head. In short, my sense of social obligation can be hijacked, especially by myself.

And so it has been with APSA TLC, which runs this week in Long Beach, CA. I’ve written and posted my paper,  and prepared my part of the short course, and generally tried to be a good citizen.

However, in the writing of the paper I came to the conclusion that one of the things that would be potentially useful to new users of simulations was a simulation on designing simulations (nb that sentence makes more sense if you read the paper): by getting people to actively engage with the difficulties of designing simulations, they would better understand them and come to recognise how to overcome them.

Having put this out there, I now find myself feeling in some way obliged to try and make that simulation, to demonstrate its viability (rather than simply leaving it as an abstracted thought). Indeed, the act of writing this blog further suggests to me that I’m trying to lock myself into this course of action.

My hesitation comes from two sources. Firstly, there is the rather ‘meta’ issue that such a simulation is going to be tricky to produce – which is exactly what the simulation is supposed to be about – but I fear that is more my problem than yours.

The second is simply one of time. APSA TLC starts on Friday this week; I fly out tomorrow (and I have several blockbusters I need to catch up with in-flight), by which time I’ve got to leave my affairs here in the office in order. This leaves hardly any time at all to work something up by the time of my presentation on Friday afternoon, especially if we assume I can find some sights to see in LA on Thursday (not to mention In-n-Out, for reasons too complicated to go into now).

But I’m going to give it a try. Partly that’s my social obligation kicking in, so that my fellow panelists don’t think I’m just being an armchair spectator. But partly it’s my own curiosity. Even since writing the paper I’ve been turning it over in my head and I think it would do me good to try and get it out.

It might not work, but I’ll have tried. And sometimes it’s the trying that matters.

Reminder: Register for APSA Teaching Learning by Feb 1st

Join the editors of ALPS at the 10th annual Teaching and Learning Conference, hosted by the American Political Science Association in Long Beach, California from 8-10 February, 2013.  This will also mark the fourth anniversary of our collective attendance on the International Relations Simulations and Role Play track and the second anniversary of the creation of this blog.  It is one of my favorite conferences, as I always feel like I leave with a number of concrete ideas to apply to my own classes and programs.  Its also been a productive venture in terms of my scholarship in teaching and learning.

Registration closes on the 1st of February and is somewhat pricey at $275 for APSA members, $370 for non-members.  On the plus side: California in February.

Hope to see some of you there. Stop by the S&R II track and say hello!

A New Year, Same Old Problems

While the discussions among the ALPS group continue on the weighty subject of whether to wear tracksuits for our short course at APSA L&T in Long Beach, I have also been talking recently with the UK’s Higher Education Academy on the related matter of developing resources for simulations across the social sciences.

This comes in the wake of the critical acclaim (i.e. my mum said it ‘sounded nice’ when I told her about it) for my work during last year, focusing on politics resources. The putting-together of basic ‘how-to’ materials exposed some of the core issues that we all face when coming to new pedagogies, as well as helping me to step back from the process and reflect some more on how we might communicate this to others.

This ties in rather neatly with my paper for Long Beach : indeed you might suspect that I’d planned it like that. The paper is shaping up to be a reflective discussion on the fundamental ambiguities in using simulations and the consequences that this has for sharing this pedagogy.

In essence, I suggest that the two main assumptions of simulations are that a) the world can be reduced to a relative simple set of features, but that b) those simple features produce great complexity and variety. We essentialise, only to expose that essence as insufficient for a rounded understanding, by means of making students ‘live’ that essence.

Thus we are offered great scope in choosing what we think is important to recreate in a simulation, which in turn means that when someone produces resources for us, they will almost inevitably not fit what we are looking for (or think we’re looking for, at any rate). In my previous experience, I’ve still yet to use someone else’s game in the same way that they suggested it be used, and I’ve not had someone else use my games in the way that I suggested.

That’s not a problem per se, but it does highlight the intrinsic difficulties of producing resources that are of use to a given individual.

My solution so far has been to try and approach simulations at the level of principles and tools, with the user operationalising the former by means of the latter, in light of their specific objectives. Alternatively, the games I’ve shared have also pointed their multiple uses and points for modification.

As I finish up my paper, I’m trying to think of other ways that this might be tackled and I’ll be looking to share these in the coming month or so and I’d be grateful for feedback and other suggestions. In particular, if people have views decision-making trees, then I’d like to hear from you.

And now, back to the tracksuit conversation.

Join us at TLC

Just a quick reminder that the deadline for proposing papers to the APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) is coming up on September 13th.  The conference will be held in Long Beach, CA from 8-10 February, 2013.  The call for papers can be found here.

The conference is organized according to 12 tracks and participants stay with their track the entire time.  The tracks range widely, from Civic Education to Teaching Research Methods, Political Theory, Graduate Students, and Internationalizing the Curriculum.  There are also workshops throughout the conference that are well worth attending.

It is a small conference, but well worth attending (in part due to its size, which encourages community-building).  The editors of this blog are regular participants in the Simulations and Role Play Track; in fact, it is at the 2011 TLC where we met and the idea for the ALPS blog first germinated. I find that more than any other conference, I come away from TLC reflecting on my own professional work and eager to try out ideas shared by colleagues.

Plus, this year it’s in southern California in February.  That can’t hurt.