Teaching the Scientific Method with Inception

Gokcek 2Today Gigi Gokcek, associate professor of political science at the Dominican University of California, discusses a technique for teaching the scientific method. She can be contacted at gigi.gokcek[at]dominican[dot]edu.

“You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in your subject’s mind.”  –Eames the Forger

A course on research methods can elicit all kinds of emotions from both students and faculty — ambivalence, anxiety, or even fear. The active learning literature offers two reasons a course on research methods incites this kind of reaction: (1) covering statistics before properly introducing the scientific method, and (2) presenting the research process in a manner that lacks creativity.

Popular movies with puzzling endings are a creative way of teaching students the scientific method. Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception (2010) presents one such example. Inception’s premise revolves around Cobb, a thief who specializes in using dream technology to “extract” corporate secrets from the minds of his victims. Saito, the head of a major corporation, offers Cobb a job to plant an “idea” inside the mind of his main competitor, Fischer. In order to “incept” Fischer with an idea to divide up his father’s empire, Cobb recruits a team of thieves, who use dream technology to enter Fischer’s mind. The first half of the movie introduces the audience to the team, lays out the rules of the dreamscapes, and sets up the plot to “incept” Fischer. During the second half, the team uses a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles to enter Fischer’s mind through the dreamscapes. But the dream world poses challenges to the team as they battle Fischer’s mental defenses against the operation. The movie concludes with Fischer incepted and Cobb returning home to his children. The audience is left wondering if Cobb is still inside a dreamscape or if he has truly awakened and returned home.

A professor using a movie like Inception to teach the scientific method can do the following:

  • First, give the students questions about the movie’s ending: What kinds of evidence suggest that Cobb awakened in the end? What evidence suggests that Cobb is not awake in the end? (Sample student worksheet is here.)
  • Second, students can be asked to identify the relevant factors. This may be achieved by reviewing the plot of the movie for information that is vital to their interpretation of the ending. Students can be informed that each dreamer must have a totem, an inanimate object (like the top Cobb uses) that helps one distinguish the dream world from the dreamer’s own reality.
  • Third, students should be required to formulate testable hypotheses based on the information provided. For example, if the top does not fall then Cobb is dreaming, or if the top falls then Cobb is awake.
  • Fourth, students test their hypotheses by collecting information (data) both while viewing the film and afterwards by searching movie blogs online.
  • Finally, students should present their findings both orally and in writing, including any new questions that have emerged in the process.

Finding creative ways to engage students in the research process will not only help them truly grasp the “science” in political science, but will also create future ambassadors for our discipline who can demonstrate to outsiders the value of what it is that we do. If we can get students to appreciate the scientific method they will not only receive knowledge discovered by others, but also add to it. By using Inception in my methods courses, my students get “incepted” with the “idea” that the scientific process, as an opportunity to expand human knowledge, is to be welcomed rather than dreaded.

Unconventional Movies As Conventional Pedagogical Tools: The Dark Knight

Gigi GokcekToday we have a guest post from Gigi Gokcek, associate professor of political science at the Dominican University of California. She can be contacted at gigi.gokcek[at]dominican[dot]edu.

Professors have long relied on movies like Dr. Strangelove (1964), Red Dawn (1984), and Thirteen Days (2000) to teach about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. While the active-learning literature validates the effectiveness of using movies like these, today’s college students may relate better to more contemporary movies. Do unconventional movies, from such franchises as Fast and Furious, Star Trek, DC Comics, and Marvel’s X-Men and Avengers, work just as well? My experience suggests that they do. When combined with activities derived from the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, I find that they are valuable tools for teaching important political science theories and concepts.

Although many students may have seen these movies by the time they enroll in my courses, I often leave this activity until the end of the term so that they have acquired sufficient knowledge of course material. The key to the assignment is that students are not told where the course content is portrayed in the movie. Students have to think more critically while viewing the film, and thereby apply what they have learned to a new setting. They use this worksheet to help make these connections. Continue reading “Unconventional Movies As Conventional Pedagogical Tools: The Dark Knight”

Fear and Loathing of Broccoli

Fear and LoathingI very rarely incorporate feature films into my courses — Dr. Strangelove has been one of the few exceptions — but anyone who is teaching political psychology should take a look at Inside Out from Pixar. The film, for which the psychologists Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner functioned as consultants, is a visual representation an 11-year old girl’s mind. Emotions take the center stage, especially in regards to memory formation and retrieval, but imagination, attention, and other processes also play into the film’s plot. More detail on the science incorporated into Inside Out is here.

Battlestar Galactica and International Relations: the Simulation

The latest in high-level confirmation that simulations are an important tool in learning: the German government is running a five day simulation (including preparation and reflection) of Battlestar Galactica, the SyFy show that examined human behavior and decisions following the devastation of society by the robots they had themselves created.  The show is often cited for its relevance to political science and international relations, and its always nice to be reminded that the use of simulations and games for learning is a well-worn and highly accepted tradition outside the college classroom.

What Hobbits can teach us about political communication

HQ of the counter-revolution

In the final splurge of Tolkien fanboy-dom, the last of The Hobbit movies is almost upon us, a mere eternity since Peter Jackson first brought his vision of Middle Earth to the screen.

One of the more provoking pieces I’ve read is this piece by Damian Walters in The Guardian. Essentially, Walters argues that Tolkien is selling a conservative, reactionary tale, told by the victors and highly biased in its allocation of values.

Walters make the point that myths are more common than they used to be, especially in movies, and this seems to be a useful starting point for a classroom discussion with students about the politics and the political communication they can see (see my post on The Lego Movie for something similar).

Here are some questions we might consider:

  • How far do the different races of Middle Earth conform to stereotypes? Plucky and innovative hobbits, evil orcs, gruff dwarves, snooty elves, fallible men: there’s not much in the way of individual characterisation beyond this, plus a lot of those who don’t conform being punished for it in some way. Overlay this with the dubious geopolitics of Tolkien’s view of ‘the South’ or ‘the East’ and there’s much to play with. Indeed, I’d almost suggest you could have a very interesting simulation of Middle Earth international diplomacy! Something for the New Year, perhaps;
  • Laketown offers a rare instance of a model of governance that is nominally non-hereditary, with the venal Steward. In the movies, this is much more developed than the book, but offers an opportunity to consider Tolkien’s view of comparative political systems. Clearly, his preference is for the benign rule of an enlightened king, but he also acknowledges the pitfalls of such a model (albeit, these are usually caused by some external ‘evil’);
  • The political communication that Walters discusses is also important. The story is presented from Bilbo’s perspective and – through both inclination and opportunity – those he does not travel and fight with are distanced and othered. How can we really know what orcs, trolls and wargs are like, if we don’t step out of our own shoes? The movies have partially considered this with Smeagol/Gollum, but it’s hard to get a sense of the interiorality of Sauron when he is never present;
  • And this leads to a bigger question: are all myths political and socially conservative? Tolkien presents a world with a magic that in not fully in the control of any one, which forces individuals to do things against their will and which disrupts the natural order of things. It’s that last point which promotes a conservative agenda, as transgression gets punished and ‘right’ wins the day (albeit with set-backs). Likewise, the existence of a higher order of being – gods, magic and the rest – that removes a degree of agency from the individual. They can appeal to that higher order to justify their actions and to trump the interests of those around them: remember that the whole of the Lord of the Rings is driven by the stated (and unanswerable) need to destroy the ring.

How far you’d want to go with all of this is up to you. But as with other objects of popular culture, there’s often more to consider than might first be apparent.

UPDATE: Thanks to Keshia Jacotine for sending me a link to Ruane & James’ book on the International Relations of Middle Earth, which tackles things in a more systematic way.

World War Z and Ebola

I use the book World War Z by Max Brooks in my politics of film and fiction course for a number of reasons.  Written as a series of interviews with survivors ten years after the end of the zombie war that are left out of the official UN report, the book serves up a pretty devastating social commentary that creates a great foundation for discussion of a wide range of issues, from the state of nature to nuclear proliferation, the benefits and drawbacks of an isolationist grand strategy, and whether the ends justifies the means in policymaking.

Since Brooks based the book on real-world reactions to infectious diseases, instructors who are looking for interesting ways to bring discussions of the response to Ebola into the classroom could do worse than assigning excerpts from this book.  The section, for example, on the ‘Great Panic’ would be an interesting way of examining the Ebola fear coming from some sectors in the US.  One excerpt has a cooperative society break down as food and other supplies dwindle and a harsh winter sets in; another describes how as one country tries to reduce its exposure to the plague, its inability to communicate effectively with a neighboring state results in the onset of armed conflict. Later in the book, someone proposes a plan that might prevent the epidemic from wiping out the remaining humans, but poses some severe ethical questions. Finally, Brooks himself has said that the international response to Ebola has actually been much better than that he wrote about in regard to the Zombie plague (where denial and lack of communication and cooperation resulted in the epidemic spreading worldwide), allowing some interesting contrasts between the two.

All of these can be promising start-off points for discussions of real-world issues.  Each interview is only a few pages, and thus can be read quickly in class before discussion.  If you have more time, it may be worthwhile to consider assigning larger sections or even the entire book.


Political readings of ‘The Lego Movie’

As I return from my annual break on the sun-kissed shores of Cornwall, I worry that I have almost singularly failed to think about learning, teaching or any other aspect of my work. Moreover, by foregoing the opportunity to attend UACES’ annual conference in Cork I’ve also missed out on some great L&T papers that I could have discussed here. I’ve even missed out on the whole #APSAonFire thing (which sounded wild, BTW).

Of course I have Lego in my office. Don’t you?

But have no fear, but I now realise that you while can take the senior lecturer out of the university, you can’t take the etc., etc.

One of the joys of spending more time with the kids over the summer has been the excuse to watch more family-oriented movies (when the sun isn’t kissing the shores, obviously), and this year’s big hit chez nous has been the Lego Movie. It’s got jokes, 1980s references, double-decker couches and – as I remarked the first time I watched it – a great representation of fascism and challenges to authoritarian rule.

So, in the spirit of my Game of Thrones post, here are some further thoughts on how you might use the Lego Movie in the classroom to stimulate discussion. And yes, that is something I’m seriously considering doing.

First Reading: Power

The easiest way into the politics of the Lego Movie is its depiction of unlimited power. Lord Business is ‘ruler of the world’ and the whole movie concerns his plot to make everything conform to his ideal (spoiler: he fails). Through his co-option of the police (with their arbitrary justice), any nominal competitive electoral system (there are voting machines (which he makes) and he’s President), the media (which is awesome (a good discussion here)) and the economy (everyone seems to work for his Octan corporation), Business is able to shape and control society through all three of Lukes’ faces of power: imposing preferences (e.g. the Micromanagers), controlling agendas (Taco Tuesday) and shaping desires (the instructions).

Moreover, Business highlights the fragility of authoritarian rule, which is strongly personalised and brittle, and so unable to adapt and change (rather literally in this case, given his plot). This echoes the argument of Runciman in The Confidence Trap (which was part of my summer reading and certainly worth a go), namely that while democracies are sub-optimal, they at least have no sense of when to fail completely and so can bounce back from threats.

There is also an implicit sense that the penetration of power is rather thin. Emmet, the hero of the (Lego) piece [you see what I did there? Ha!], is portrayed as being utterly compliant at the start of the film, but Bad Cop is incredulous that he, Emmet, thinks Business is a ‘great guy’. This suggests that the wider social compact is more tenuous than it immediately appears: certainly, when the revolution comes, it takes very little indeed to make it happen (‘you don’t know me, but I’m on TV, so you can trust me’ is the key line here). Plenty of room here for a discussion about how much people actually pay to their political lives.

Second Reading: The Liberal Ideal?

As the film progresses, we discover that Bricksburg – Emmet’s home – is merely one of many ‘worlds‘. Wyldstyle explains (‘Proper name. Placename. Backstory’) that originally the Lego world was one, until Business got confused about the pieces getting mixed up, so divided them up, to make each one a more pure (my word) place.

While this doesn’t lead to conflict between worlds, it does speak to the benefits of free exchange in stimulating creativity (cf. La-La Land) and reducing tension: consider the volume of resources put into policing the boundaries and chasing down the Master Builders.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you might want to get into notions of social homogenisation and conformity (‘get rid of anything weird-looking’), but this really goes to the edge of what could be grounded in the film itself.

Third Reading: Meta, meta, META!

The core message of the film is that we should not be bound by the instructions, but rather need to believe in ourselves and our ideas. That means not ‘buying over-priced coffee’ or being told what to do more generally. And yet, the film is itself a commercial product, that you are invited to consume, together with various Lego kits from the film.

I leave you to work out how you have a discussion about whether the explicit message is compromised by the manner of its delivery.


So there you go: everything is politics, as they don’t say. Would love to hear your views on this, if only to reassure me that I’m not the only one who does this with kids films.

ISA 2014-Advancing the Learning Environment in the Digital Age

Four of the five ALPS editors are together again, presenting on this ISA Innovative Panel on various aspects of simulations, games, films, and the use of digital technology. Patricia Campbell of American Public University opened the panel with a discussion of the parameters of the digital world of pedagogy. Pamela Chasek of Manhattan College just presented on her Model UN course and how technology has really aided the endeavor, from using the internet for pre-conference research to having students text her when they are about to give speeches in their committees.  Also, I think that every Model UN team should have an award called “The Mike Tyson Award for Diplomacy”.

Susherwood again won the award for best graphics in a presentation, this time for the use of varying images of fruit as a metaphor for assessment, while Victor Asal discussed his WWII negotiation simulation, which helps students learn about mediation, rationality, and discrimination.  One key aspect of the simulation is that certain students, based on either the country they represent or particular attributes, are cut completely out of the simulation and unable to ‘win’. This tied into my own presentation with Nina Kollars, which was on the role of failure in courses and the need to focus on the experience and lessons learned by the losers in our games and simulations.

Patrick James of USC talked about his book, The International Relations of Middle Earth, which focuses on how we can learn positivist and critical theory from the Lord of the Rings.  He later shared that doctoral students are finding this book and its approach useful in studying for comprehensive exams.

Unsurprisingly, this last presentation hit me the closest, as I teach a course that is grounded in learning politics from film and fiction.  I’m going to pick up a copy of the book at the exhibit, and start incorporating the insights into my course.

But the best part was at the end, when a member of the audience called for some public diplomacy on behalf of pedagogy, to create a culture where learning about teaching is valued (and better attended!)

Half the Sky

Half the SkyI’ve mentioned before that Edutopia has some great information on project-based learning. What I haven’t mentioned is that the Edutopia website conveniently indexes content from  multiple blogs according to topic. On the index page for game-based learning, I found a July 2013 post by Matthew Farber on gaming for social good. His post has links to several interesting free online games, such as Ayiti: The Cost of Life (which we’ve talked about here and here). A similar game about rural poverty, but with what some might regard as a more elegant user interface, is 3rd World Farmer.

Farber’s post led me to the Half the Sky Movement, a partnership between USAID and fhi 360‘s Communication for Change (C-Change) project that is focused on women’s empowerment in the developing world. Half the Sky has a simple Facebook adventure gamethree mobile phone-based games, a full-length documentary (George Clooney fans, take note), and eighteen free online videos about the lives of women in Kenya, India, Liberia, and Somaliland. The games and films engagingly present topics such as:

  • Family planning/reproductive health
  • Girls’ education
  • Women and children’s health
  • Economic empowerment
  • Sex trafficking
  • Domestic violence

These resources are quite worthy of your consideration if you are teaching about economics, international development, public health, women and politics, and education.

At Berkeley

Free Speech CafeMy wife and I recently attended a screening of At Berkeley, a documentary created by Frederick Wiseman. The film is four hours long, so be warned. We left the theater at the halfway point to check out an exhibit of the work of some Iranian and Arab women photographers. Seeing on screen the same staff meetings and classroom environments that the two of us experience daily is just not that interesting after a while.

Of the two hours of the documentary that we did watch, a few scenes stand out. One was a retreat of UC Berkeley’s top administrators in 2010 (I think), led by the university’s chancellor at the time, Dr. Robert J. Birgeneau. At the meeting, Dr. Birgeneau laid out the problem facing Berkeley in stark terms: how can the university maintain its academic excellence and affordability for non-wealthy Californians when the state government has steadily divested itself from the public university system? Berkeley was in the position of having to cut $75 million from its operational costs without sacrificing academic quality or student financial aid.

A subsequent scene showed a graduate classroom discussion about poverty and economic opportunity, especially in relation to equitable access to educational resources. An astute student made the point that — in the USA at least — these topics didn’t attract much attention until Caucasian, middle class, suburban families began experiencing unemployment and home foreclosure during the economic crisis that began in 2008.

Although At Berkeley supposedly has no underlying theme beyond presenting an inside look at an organization in a particular place and time, I believe it showcases the implications of treating knowledge production and dissemination, and the universities where that happens, as private rather than public goods. Unfortunately, public divestment in higher education — in terms of state government appropriations of taxpayer dollars — has been occurring in the USA for a few decades now, and the process is likely to continue.