Devil’s Workshop

Bosch 2If idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, then idle minds are even worse. I expected my comparative politics students to be mentally absent on the day before Easter vacation, so I surprised them with a rocket pitch competition based on a discussion that occurred the previous week. Students had twenty-five minutes to design a presentation with their teammates. The presentations had to identify the causes of a political process through a comparison of three cases — each team’s choice of two nation-states plus the fictional state of Gerkhania, which I will write about in a future post. Teams were free to select the two or three variables — which I referred to as factors — they thought were most relevant to their team’s analysis. Visually the presentations looked something like:

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Conferences as a hotbed of radical thinking

I like academic conferences. I like meeting old friends and acquaintances, the making of new contacts, the banter and the chatter, the overheard conversations of people who forget where they are and who might be listening, the discovery of even more areas of academic endeavour that you’re not interested in and (less frequently) that you are interested in. I like being away from work, while still being at work, even if the ubiquity of wifi (which allows me to write this at the airport) means that work-work is still able to get hold of you if they must. I like that I can usually get at least a flavour of a place I’d not get to visit otherwise, to broaden my cultural horizons, even if that does only mean eating the local delicacy.

And I like all these things despite the fact that I rarely learn anything at conferences. It’s not that it doesn’t happen – as you’re about to read – but that much of the substantive content is either stuff you’ve heard before (if it’s the big name prof giving a plenary), stuff that’s potential, rather than actual (if it’s a grad student outlining the next steps of their doctoral work), or stuff that confirms what you always suspected (most of the rest).

To be clear, that’s not a problem. Indeed, I’d argue it’s precisely what makes a conference really useful.

The thing I love (rather than just like) about conferences is the space to think dangerous thoughts, to discuss radical ideas. That conversation in the hotel lobby with the colleague you’ve not seen for a while, the chance combination of ideas that suddenly resolve into a plan.

At this conference, I’ve had several of those moments and have written some of them up already here.But it was today, as I pounded the streets of Toronto, that something came together that made me all eager to share.

As I’ve written before, I’m introducing a Liberal Arts & Sciences degree at Surrey and will be involved in teaching some of the core modules. That includes research methods this autumn.

Now, I’ve not taught research methods before and I’ve not been taught research methods before (my alma mater was rather like that), so I’m working here on the topic’s reputation, which is awful.

But yesterday, I was listening to Cai Wilkinson from Deakin talk about her task-based learning approach that she uses in her area studies course. Essentially, this is a form of PBL, where students have weekly, pre-defined tasks to achieve, such as writing a press release, or producing a storyboard.

That struck as a more manageable form of PBL, which I really want to use, but which I’m anxious about using, never having had direct experience of it. But it was the sudden connection I made today with another half-thought that was so stimulating.

Some weeks ago, my son came back from school and asking if we were related. Obviously, as his biological, legal and everything-else father, I said yes. But he wanted to show me his test for related-ness which he’d been playing all day. This seemed to involve hitting my hands and ultimately confirmed that we were related (which was nice).

But his question about “are we related?” struck me an excellent example of a question we might pose to an interdisciplinary group of students learning about research methods. It can be taken at least as a biological question, or a legal one, or a social one, or a hand-hitting one. Each approach is couched in different assumptions and probes different elements and in the contrasting of those approaches we might create space for students to appreciate the conditionality of any one approach.

Nice idea, but I’ve lacked a way to operationalise this. Until today, where I could see a way to do that brought in Cai’s model.

I’m not going to talk about it here – not least because it still needs some work – but it all serves to underline my starting point.

How many times do we come away from a conference, charged with enthusiasm and creativity, only for it to wither in the face of the pile of stuff back at work? My present enthusiasm is unlikely to survive the red-eye back home, but that moment to dream a little, to break free from the bounds of my day-to-day routine is something that I will be able to return to long from now. Come October, when I sit down with my students and ask them if we’re related, a bit of my mind will think back to a brisk spring day in Toronto.

And that’s why I really like conferences.

Leaning Towers of Puft

Stay PuftI used the marshmallow challenge in two classes last week — one an introductory course on globalization and the other a senior interdisciplinary seminar. Out of a total of fourteen teams, only two constructed a tower that remained upright when time expired. Most teams followed the same path to eventual destruction.

In each class I ran a debriefing discussion after the exercise in which I asked students how their experience of the challenge could be applied to problem solving in general. I then showed them Tom Wujec’s TED Talk (see the linked post above), which repeated many of the ideas they had generated on their own — namely that effective problem-solving is both an iterative and a collaborative process. Individuals rarely stumble upon the perfect solution the moment they begin thinking about a problem. Testing possible solutions — prototypes — increases the chances of achieving one’s goal. Facilitation skills are also important. Good communication and a willingness to consider the perspectives of others are just as important as technical skills.

Worksheets for Adaptive Decision Making

BieberThe last two worksheets that I plan on using this semester for project-based learning are more explicitly oriented toward, for lack of a better term, adaptive decision making. I’m hoping these worksheets will lead each student to do four things:

  • Assess what direction his or her team is headed in,
  • Decide whether that direction is a good one,
  • Think of either a new, better direction or think of something that will improve what his or her team is currently doing.
  • Determine with his or her teammates how to make the team more productive.

The worksheets are 6 Plus Minus Interesting and 7 What Might Happen If.

Enjoy, and if you use any of these worksheets, please tell me how it goes. Who knows, they might even help Justin Bieber’s legal team prevent him from getting deported.

Team Performance Assessment

CheerleadersIn a previous post on why group work matters, I discussed two prerequisites for effective collaboration in the typical undergraduate classroom:

  • Individually-graded assignments and an effective system of peer evaluation to prevent free riders,
  • Diversity within groups that enriches students’ learning experiences and prepares them for workplace success.

I’ve attempted to achieve the latter objective in two of my courses by deliberately populating project-based learning groups with students of various ages (first-year, second-year, etc.) and academic majors. I’ve distributed male and female students across groups as evenly as possible, too.

In a third course, each student self-selects into a group according to the theme he or she wants to focus on for the semester. While it’s always possible that a single student might end up working alone because he or she is the only person to choose a particular theme, or that a group will be extremely non-diverse, I think it’s unlikely. A year ago students’ preferences fell fairly evenly across the themes, making for groups that were of similar size but also diverse in terms of gender and age. For my purposes, in this course generating student buy-in by giving them a limited choice over content outweighs the chance that some groups might be less diverse than others.

As for preventing free riders, students will be completing two worksheets that elucidate the relationship between responsibility and productivity when working with others. The 4 IP3 worksheet is designed to get students talking about what kind of procedures they will need to follow if they are going to collaborate effectively on the project. The 5 Team Assessment worksheet is a more explicit peer evaluation instrument, but it has the twist of asking students to identify on their own which characteristics they think are important for working productively as a team. I am planning on using this worksheet twice — one-third and two-thirds into the semester — so that students gain a greater sense of whether they and their teammates are moving in the right direction.

As with the other worksheets, what students write down won’t constitute a formal part of the course’s final grade, but the peer evaluation will help me gauge how groups are functioning and identify any slackers. From there I can adjust a particular student’s grades on different group assignments accordingly. More importantly, evaluating oneself and one’s coworkers, and then discussing what one has written, might be the best way of preventing free riders. Telling someone “you screwed up” is never pleasant, but it often needs to happen, and people often need to hear it. I’m hoping that the worksheets will get the students to learn how to do this on their own so that I don’t have to.

Helps and Hindrances

Brain on fireIn my last post on brainstorming exercises for project-based learning, I embedded some cropped images of the relevant worksheets.  Here are are the complete worksheets in pdf form:

I see both of the exercises occurring within the first week or two of classes for a project that is supposed to occupy a team of students for the whole semester.

Brainstorming I and II should be viewed as a set in which each student works individually before working with others as a team. The remaining worksheets specify individual and team work in the same exercise — through the instruction “discuss your ideas with your teammates when they are finished.”

I’m hoping that the worksheet process — writing on physical pieces of paper that students have put their names to — will make students feel that they are being held accountable for their contributions by me and by their teammates. This is a major leap of faith on my part, but I know from experience as both a student and a professor that some kind of individual accountability is necessary to prevent free riders and facilitate effective collaboration. However, even though I’ll be collecting completed worksheets — and possibly organizing them into files for students to access in class as a resource — I will not be formally grading them. Students will be evaluating their own and their teammates contributions on two occasions later in the semester; I’ll be discussing that in a future post.

After brainstorming, students will start translating ideas into action using the 3 Helps and Hindrances worksheet, which is designed to coach each student into conducting a finer-grained analysis of one of the ideas previously generated by his or her team. Teams should then be able to identify what are the most promising initial strategies for completing the project successfully — a bit like Xenophon convening a discussion of the generals and captains of the Ten Thousand in the Anabasis.

Labors of Hercules

HerculesRecently my wife and I were in a lounge area, waiting to be seated. On the wall, as is the current custom, was a large, loud television. The noise made conversation difficult, so our attention wandered to the screen, where we could see “Live with Kelly and Michael” — a show in which celebrities promote their latest projects.

The guest being interviewed was an actor named Kellen Lutz, who is starring in one of two new Hercules films. Mr. Lutz, remarking that he was told on short notice that he needed to travel to Bulgaria for filming, said “I was like ‘where’s Bulgaria?'” Guest, host, and hostess then laughed merrily.  I turned to my wife and said, “Only in the USA do people take such pride in their own stupidity.”

While it’s not necessary for a person to remember every single bit of factual information he or she comes across in life — especially if that person can remember where and how to find that information in the future — celebrating one’s intellectual laziness and lack of curiosity is not going to be a successful life strategy for the vast majority of us.

I try to emphasize this to my students in how I teach. I want students to 1) independently identify what they don’t know but should, and 2) figure out how to acquire that knowledge. This means students have to take responsibility for their learning; my role is simply to create opportunities that they, if they choose to, can exploit. I might need to do a little coaching to communicate the tangible benefits that will arise as a result, but if a particular person does not want to learn, that’s really not my problem. Horse plus water does not necessarily equal drink.

This philosophy (which I admit developed over a number of years in the profession) probably explains my current interest in project-based learning (PBL). Since training in the PBL pedagogy wasn’t part of my doctoral program, I’m learning on the job (thereby modeling for students what I’ve described above). I’ve been seeking out resources that can help me help students collaborate effectively.

Collaboration in the classroom often falls apart because students don’t stay on task. As a possible remedy for this problem, I’ve modified a few of the worksheets for collaborative project work in K-12 classrooms. The first worksheets I’m going to use are designed to facilitate brainstorming within a team. First, the entire team throws out ideas on the team’s project and the ideas are written down on the form below. Team members are prohibited from judging the quality of the ideas during this activity.

Brainstorming I In the second stage, each member of the team completes a worksheet in which they generate criteria for evaluating the ideas that were listed earlier.

Brainstorming II

In the last stage of the process, the team reconvenes and formulates a basic framework for how it will approach the project.

I’ll let you know about the other worksheets that I plan on using in future posts.

By Way of Discussion

ConversationAs part of my effort to make classroom discussion a more productive part of all my courses, but especially one that uses problem-based learning, I’ve been poking around for helpful advice. I found Discussion as a Way of Teaching, by Dr. Stephen Brookfield. It’s a concise document that makes a lot of great points about how to make discussion pedagogically effective, such as:

  • Students should establish ground rules for how discussions should operate.
  • Instructors can assign students specific conversational techniques and roles that enable them to strengthen connections with others and better exchange information.
  • Rotating students to different or progressively larger discussion groups can lead to a more thorough exploration of possible solutions to a problem.
  • Students can become aware of their own assumptions through a collaborative discussion with their peers, which is very different from having an authority figure (the instructor) telling them what they should know.

A method that I think could be particularly useful to my teaching is an exercise in which each student in a group chooses a conversational role that determines the form of their responses in a discussion. For example, the connector identifies “how participants’ contributions are connected to each other,” while the speculator introduces “new interpretations and possible lines of inquiry into the group.” I can see giving each student project group a list of roles, each member of the group selecting a different role, and students rotating to a different role each day.

The Beer Game

Global to Local with Podcasts

Homer CakeI recently stumbled across Ecological Economics: A Workbook for Problem-Based Learning, by Drs. Joshua Farley and Jon D. Erickson of the University of Vermont and Dr. Herman E. Daly of the University of Maryland (Island Press, 2005). The book begins with the premise that current social and environmental problems “require armies of independent-minded, collaborative, and passionate problem-solvers, not more Jeopardy champions” (p. xii). Unfortunately, educational systems are typically organized to deliver knowledge as isolated packets that, once encountered, can safely be forgotten. Students infrequently learn how to collaborate, much less apply different types of knowledge in an integrative fashion.

Problem solving often requires that one be aware of and be interested in how problems manifest themselves differently across different temporal or physical dimensions. I find this to be exceedingly difficult to teach to U.S. undergraduates, but I’ve found public TV and radio to be helpful. For example, when looking at environmental change in the context of economic development, I might assign stories about:

These podcasts, videos, and interactive online features are timely and serve as localized examples of global processes that would otherwise remain vague and of no real concern for many students. Also the content is in a novel format, at least in terms of what usually is assigned to students, which gets their attention.