31 March 2013

Malaria: Using simulations to understand global politics #gbl

To what extent can we use simulations to enhance our understanding of the geopolitical challenge that is global public health?

Our second non Model UN simulation this year was an attempt to understand the dynamics of global public health through the lens of malaria. The Unit Plan I constructed isn't quite as organized as I would like-I wil revise for next year. However, I adopted the the same basic format for this as I did for our Nuclear Iran unit; inquiry-based acquisition of information, application and analysis of information in group presentations, synthesis and evaluation of information through the simulation, and then communication, reporting, and production of information via a report. This last bit was the student's first opportunity for the students to write an IB Internal Assessment. One of the most exciting portions of the unit came right from the outset. The idea of studying public health as a political challenge is something entirely new for the class. I've included screen captures of student responses to the Think-Puzzle-Explore Visible Thinking Routine that we began with below: 

The students' responses to these prompts (formative assessment) then guided the next step of the unit; 
the aggregation of different global actors who are involved in malaria. We created a shared Google Spreadsheet that allowed us to compile this list and facilitated discussions around many of the key concepts for the units. We then navigated both a webquest which helped the students frame and deepen their understanding of the desease itself. Working in groups, students produced a data collection report on Malaria that would then help them at the next stage of the process: the simulation

The simulation was developed by the Peace Corps and is a fairly complex one. Students act as Peace Corps workers in a fictional African village. Workers are tasked with interviewing locals about various concerns in the village. Some of these concerns relate specifically to malaria where others dealt more broadly with issues of clean water, education, and other facets of development. Students must distill which information is relevant to their task in the short run, while simultaneously considering medium- and longer-term solutions to local concerns. 

What ties all of this inquiry and gaming together of course is the analytical reporting that the students produce at the end of the process. This was our class' first attempt at writing a political engagement report; that is, the IB Internal Assessment for this course. Students made several attempts at this report and we relied on dialogue and feedback via Barnes' SE2R framework. You can read some of the students' work herehere, and here. Ultimately, I feel that this is a great way to introduce the geopolitical challenge of global public health with a topic (malaria) that generally receives less treatment than it deserves in world politics classes. 

The Council on Foreign Relations chose to highlight some of my work

I'm very humbled and honored to be featured by the Council on Foreign Relations in this month's Educators Bulletin. Thanks to my students (of course) and to the great folks @CFR_Academic for helping to make this possible. Please read my reflections on the entire unit which is centered on learning through simulations and games; including the ways in which we use some of the CFR's resources that were featured in the Educators Bulletin profile. If nothing else, I feel that this recognition affirms my own belief that the study of world politics be strengthened and deepened in high school classes and that simulations and games provide a vehicle for meaningful learning about complex, real world issues.

19 March 2013

On the 10 year anniversary of the #Iraq War

It's worth recalling the academics who were against the invasion. Its also important to recognize that most of the signatories to this op-ed can easily fall into the Realist camp of IR. This op-ed was published in the New York Times on 26 September 2002. I also recall being a 1st year grad student at the ISA convention in Portland, OR; we were convening when the invasion began. I think the entire conference stood on the stairs and all throughout the lobby of the hotel (for cameras, of course-although IR academics don't tend to be too camera friendly). I'm pretty sure I was standing near John Vasquez towards the top of the stairs. In any event, let it be remembered that the academic community most attuned to world politics, regardless of political or theoretical variety, were firmly against the invasion of Iraq. 

18 March 2013

Using #SE2R for Model UN

I'm finding that the more I talk about how I use narrative feedback as the principal form of assessment in my class, I'm encountering questions such as,"That's great for papers, but what about group projects or simulations?" The answer of course is easy; simply leverage technology towards your instructional practices. 

We're preparing for a single-day UN Security Council Model UN Simulation in June. Part of the simulation parameters are that students work in teams to prepare their briefs and negotiating strategy. In addition, I have several students who will be performing the Spring Play, on March of the Living, or who otherwise won't be at the actual simulation. Nevertheless, the teams themselves need the opportunity to work together to build their country profiles, background research on the issue of intervention, as well as their first pass at position papers.

We use Google Drive for all aspects of student work in IB Global Politics. I set up folders for each group of students where they had access to core documents from the simulation as well as their template for their country profiles. All students can work on different aspects of their country profile template simultaneously and each document is accessible across a variety of devices; laptops, tablets, and phones. 

As for SE2R; it couldn't be easier than with Google Drive. I comment on the progress, development, and analytical points the group makes in crafting their country profiles. I also give the conventional SE2R summary at the top of each template. This then guides the group's work as they refine and amplify their country profiles over a series of weeks. 


I know that implementing these tools isn't necessarily rocket surgery; in fact, it shouldn't be. Elegantly considered, designed, and implemented solutions that are squarely attuned to student learning leave the most time and space for collaborative learning for students and faculty alike. What matters most is how tools such as Google Drive and SE2R facilite meaningful working relationships in class. 

12 March 2013

Survival: Using simulations to understand world politics #gbl

We ran SURVIVAL in class today. Four teams of three to four students, without cell phones or other technology, had no less than 30 minutes to read through the scenario description and reach consensus as to ranking 12 items that survived their mid-winter plane crash in the wilds of northern Canada. Granted, it was a little unfair to ask the students to consider what minus 25 degres feels like when it was  70 and clear this morning on campus this morning:

Weather aside, getting the students outside was only one of the many highlights of this simulation. First, its easy to facilitate. Students found themselves working wherever they wanted, trying to cooperate in a crisis situation. As we discussed in the debrief-the second benefit of this simulation, the debrief always goes longer than the sim itself-there are an infinite number of ways to run this simulation. I actually could give the students the preferred ranking of their items-lighter, steel wool, compass, axe, and the rest-and it still would be challenging. This brings up the third, and for me, the most beneficial aspect of the SURVIVAL simulation; it's not about wilderness survival. 



When teaching students about politics, you should always address the concepts of power and interests (of agents) in the context of a given political structure. Regardless of the theoretical or epistemological underpinnings of your approach to world politics, actors do not operate in a fictional state of nature; There is a power and social structure of rules and practices to all human activities. Actors-be they governments, IOs, NGOs, or any variety of other non-state actor-have interests. We can debate the nature of these interests, the degree to which they are socially constructed or not, but these interests and preferences do matter as to the way actors make decisions. Of course, every actor also has different sets of power-however you seek to define it-and this power may vary from context to context. Put another way, actors have a willingness and opportunity (channeling Siverson and Starr, 1990) to participate in what Bull (1977) accurately described as an anarchical society

I tend to operate from a fairly game-theoretical perspective in our class; I actually introduce game theory via Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's TED Talk. While we don't engage in formal modeling in our class, we do spend so much time playing, simulating, and participating in negotiation that we are always thinking about, experimenting with, and reflecting upon the ways in which we define our interests and use our power in a social context. The SURVIVAL simulation creates a social context for students that is unfamiliar. Students experience a different and stressful context where they have to be able to clearly define realities, rules, and other actors fairly quickly. The second aspect of the simulation is for students to overtly identify what their interests are (in this case, it is survival, which means staying warm and getting rescued), see if others in their situation have made similar choices, and assess the degree to which these interests align. If students have correctly understood the structure in which they find themselves (many often don't; the feel that they can walk out 20 miles in sub-zero weather with a map and a compass or ignore the fact that plane's have published flight plans and that help will be on the way) and they can clearly articulate their interests or themselves, then they can participate in negotiation and decision-making exercises about how to prioritize scarce resources in a crisis. Again, the SURVIVAL simulation is not at all about wilderness survival. It's a great way to play with decision making strategies, serve as an ice breaker for groups and teams, and (in our case) launch a new round of Model United Nations preparations for our Security Council simulations in early April. 

Had a wonderful tweetup tonight #NASAGAchat #gbl

If you're not already aware of, affiliated with, or otherwise engaging the folks at the North American Simulation and Gaming Association, drop what your doing and take a look. For anyone interested in the ways in which simulations and games can be used as authentic assessments in our classrooms, this is probably one of the best communities to be affiliated with.

09 March 2013

Enhancing student motivation and performance

Christodoulou, A., Duncan, J., & Nelmes, G. (2013). Enhancing student motivation and performance: Tools that develop and support informed choice. IB Journal of Teaching Practice, 1(1). Retrieved from

In their article from the inaugural edition of the IB Journal of Teaching Practice, Christodoulou, Duncan, and Nelmes identify four strategies designed to empower student choice in their school. Student choice manifests itself in the ways that students perceive their own learning styles, choosing assignments that connect to their perceived learning style, assessment via a common performance rubric that captures student work regardless of assignment choice, and post assessment reflection and survey that measures student motivation  Adopting an action research model, the authors show that student motivation and performance on assessments increases after the intervention of the particular strategies that they have developed. The authors conclude that, "The students felt empowered as their understanding of themselves as learners increased, and their confidence grew as they engaged with the learning opportunities, resulting in heightened motivation and performance."

These findings are of course consistent with Pink (2009); that individuals are motivated by their sense of autonomy, their mastery of a subject or problem, and their sense of purpose. Student choice is about what and how they learn are essential pilliars of both differentiated instructional models and a Results Only Learning Environment (Barnes, 2013). Christodoulou, Duncan, and Nelmes' research is also perfectly appropriate for the use of simulations and games in class. Students can identify roles that they wish to adopt and explore in simulations; representing a particular country, committee, and or topics in Model United Nations for example. This sense of autonomy in what role the student takes is undoubtedly a preferred option to motivate students rather than mandating particular roles or assignments. Using a common framework for assessment-narrative feedback on position papers, speeches, and draft resolutions-allows students to continually develop their mastery of their chosen country, committee, and topics. Perhaps most importantly, a student's sense of purpose is undoubtedly found in the process of participating in the Model United Nations simulations and post-simulation debriefing and reflection.
Student choice is an essential pillar for meaningful learning. Student agency enhances student motivation, which in turn makes constructing authentic, experiential learning environments possible and more successful for students and instructors alike.

08 March 2013

Iran Nuclear Crisis: Using simulations to understand global politics.

To what extent can we use simulations to enhance our understanding of global political challenges? How can students meaningfully appreciate the complexity of world politics?

One of the first non-Model United Nations games that we engaged in this year was to play the Truman National Security Project's web based simulation, Tell Me How This Ends. In order to prepare for this, students engaged in preliminary research on Iran, detailed investigations on Iran's nuclear program, a review of the policy debate about the utility of Iran's nuclear program and the pros and cons of attacking Iran, as well as a primer on U.S. foreign policy decision making. Throughout the process, students were assessed with narrative feedback on their ideas and analysis, often conveyed through Visible Thinking Routines, presentations, article summaries, responses to online polls, and reflections on the simulation. The students also demonstrated their understanding of the material in a summative case study. The complete lesson can be found here. I've also enclosed some pictures of students engaging in heated debate and decision making during the simulation, as well as an example of some student responses to the Visible Thinking Routine, Headlines.

I found this entire project-from design to implementation to revision and now increasingly sharing it with others-incredibly meaningful. More importantly, the students (I hate saying "my students"; they're not-we share a learning space together) found this unit to be one of the most useful and formative for themselves. Some of the students chose to use this experience to craft their Political Engagement Activity (Internal Assessment) that is a part of their International Baccalaureate coursework. Most of the students told me in one form or another that the process of research, action, and reflection through this simulation allowed them to understand the complexity of this issue in ways that were not possible if we had simply engaged in traditional classroom practices. All of the conversations I had with students, observation of and listening to students that I did during the simulation, and comments and feedback I gave the students on their written work point to the fact that they truly understand big, complex ideas such as sovereignty and security, as well as the granular details of the U.S.-Iranian confrontation that Graham Allison described as, "the Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion."

"Building Skills for Independent Learning": A great article in support of simulation and games in our classrooms.

ASCD Express 8.11 - Building Skills for Independent Learning

Pease and Carpenter address an often-overlooked issue for teachers and students alike; "what are the attributes of an independent learner?" Far too often, both students and teachers look at the issue of independent learning in dichotomous terms. Independent learning either occurs outside of class while teachers maintain their sage on the stage presence or students simply sit in a class completing worksheets or other tasks, completely divorced from their instructor's feedback and counsel. Pease and Carpenter offer useful and pragmatic guidance on the middle ground between these two extremes.  Faculty should be teaching students self regulation through goal-setting, personalized feedback and assessment, and reflection. Secondly, faculty should create opportunities for students to learn persistance through repeated trial, error, and ultimately success in encountering complex and challenging problems. Finally, faculty should construct circumstances for students to collaborate with their colleagues in ways that allow them to practice and develop their social skills along with reflection on the dynamics of group processes.

This advice of course, is perfectly attuned for those of us who place games and narrative feedback at the center of our classrooms. Simulations and games allow students to embrace experiential learning on complex phenomena. Students set goals ('winning', 'survival', 'solve the problem'), receive individualized feedback about their play from fellow players, instructors, and the game itself, and reflect on the consequences of their actions. Games allow students to encounter problems in an iterated fashion where mistakes and failure are more common than victory. After all, who would play a game that was easy to win each and every time? This repeated play, where students learn and adapt their play to the construct of the game, builds persistance in a student's habits of learning. Finally, games are inherently collaborative in nature. Whether playing along side their classmates or with players from around the world, simulations and games allow students the context to hone their investigation, negotiation and diplomatic skills in ways that passive learning experiences such as lectures, routinized homework, or sitting for examinations cannot.

07 March 2013

Ask Yourself: Are Students Engaged?

Educational Leadership:Technology-Rich Learning:Ask Yourself: Are Students Engaged?

In the current edition of Educational Leadership, Robert Marzano poses four rather interesting questions for all of us to reflect upon our teaching practice: Do I provide a safe, caring, and energetic environment? Do I make things interesting? Do I demonstrate why the content is important? Do I help students realize that personal effort is the key to success?

Of course, Marzano fails to ask a set of equally important questions. Do the students think I provide a safe, caring and energetic environment? Do the students feel interested in what they are learning? Do the students appreciate that the content is important? Do the students feel that their personal efforts are appreciated and understood? 

Answering both sets of questions will make for a more collaborative and meaningful learning environment for every learner in a classroom.