11 February 2014

Learning key concepts in a game-based, de-graded classroom

One of the questions I am most often asked by colleagues, folks I meet at workshops, or on Twitter goes something like this: "How do you teach core content if you're always playing games and simulations?" Without delving into the debate surrounding what constitutes core content, my general response is that I create situations where students can actively experiment with abstract concepts. For those of you familiar (or unfamiliar for that matter) with Kolb's Experimental Learning Cycle, this is the phase of model where students seek to make sense of events, ideas, and the relationship between them.

This week's  class with the Year 1 students is a great example of this in practice. We played Classical Realism in class yesterday. This game and debriefing session reinforced the students' prior knowledge of key concepts such as alliances, anarchy, balance of power, bandwagoning, bargaining, game theory, interdependence, interests, opportunity, perception, power, realism, sovereignty, strategy, and willingness. Today's class built upon this knowledge while adding key terms such as autocratic rule, bureaucratic politics, constitutional democracy, democratic peace, diversionary theory of war, geopolitics, group think, newsgroup syndrome, polarity, polarization, political efficacy, procedural rationality, prospect theory, rational choice, satisficing, standard operating procedures, sunk costs, two-level games, and unitary actor. While some of these latter terms have been covered peripherally at earlier points in the year we use this unit, The Politics of Nuclear Proliferation, to explicitly dive into learning about and applying our understanding of these concepts. 

Students were asked to read (and some started on their own prior to class) an scanned copy of Kegley and Raymond's "Foreign Policy Decision Making" from an older edition of their text The Global Future for 45 minutes. Students were advised to pay special attention to the key concepts in the margins of the text during their reading period. Once this was complete, the students were divided into four teams. Teams were randomly assigned 6 index cards with concepts, 24 concepts in total, from the chapter. As a group, students were tasked with constructing a definition for each term, without using the text, their phones, or laptops; one that would mirror the textbook definition. Teams were then given index cards with the textbook definition for each of the terms. In many cases, students reported that their own or collaborative definitions were very close to that from the text that they had read in the previous 45 minutes. In cases where students felt their definitions were off from the textbook, they chose to revise their description in order to be more consistent with the mechanics of the game. From the student's perspective, this first round of formative assessment may seem to occur organically. However, this is formative check is included by design; one of several of formative checks throughout the class period and the unit itself. 

Once the teams had two definitions for each of their assigned terms, the game began in earnest. We played Glossary, a powerfully simple review game from @thiagi (thanks as always). Our modified mechanics and flow are relatively straightforward. Teams would take turns reading their definitions to another group in an effort to earn points in the game. For example: in Round 1 Team 1 would read out a key term and both definitions to Team 2. If Team 2 correctly guessed which was from the textbook or which was from the students, they earned a point. If Team 2's guess was incorrect, then Team 1 earned the point. To mix it up, the the teams worked through this matrix during the game: 
  • Round 1: Team 1 reads to Team 2; Team 2 reads to Team 3; Team 3 reads to Team 4; Team 4 reads to Team 1
  • Round 2: Team 1 reads to Team 3; Team 2 reads to Team 4; Team 4 reads to Team 3; Team 4 reads to Team 3
  • Round 3: Team 1 reads to Team 4; Team 2 reads to Team 1; Team 3 reads to Team 2; Team 4 reads to Team 3. 
For added intrigue, a few terms that were not in the chapter-foreign policy, power, sovereignty, and interdependence-were randomly distributed amongst the concepts, with definitions from other sources. These concepts, save for foreign policy, are essential components of this section of the IB syllabus and ones we have been working with all year. Correct answers for these terms were worth 2 points. Today's results ended up with a tie between Team 1 and Team 4-each earning 5 points during the three rounds. 





As I'm sure its clear from the pictures above, the Glopo folks had a fabulous time applying their comprehension of the reading from the first part of class Of course, we've done these sorts of activities before in IB Global Politics; specifically, for Introduction to World Politics and Human Rights. In every case, the debate, dialogue, and debriefing become really powerful ways of (a) observing the degree to which students have an understanding of the material and (b) allowing students the opportunity to check their own and each other's comprehension of the terms. For example, debate within the teams prior to deciding which definition came from which source allowed students to discuss and frame their own understanding. Note, the choices students faced in the game weren't about identifying a "correct" definition of the term-both were correct to varying degrees. Rather, students had the opportunity to both (a) construct their own definitions of terms and (b) analyze and evaluate different meanings of key concepts. This latter aspect of the self-assessment is key for students in IB Global Politics, as the IB syllabus in the form of assessment objectives (read: course standards) specifically task students with interpreting concepts from different meanings or standpoints. From my standpoint as the designer and facilitator of learning, my job became one of listening to students, asking questions about their understanding, offering feedback (rather thank advice) to their ideas, and to document the totality of their learning experience. 

As always, no students' GPAs were harmed by grading their thinking or participation in these activities. Instead, conceptual understanding is formatively assessed as a part of a long cycle of individual learning; these games are simply one point in this process. Finally, while there are many ways to introduce students to key concepts or other essential material for a course, my argument is that games and simulations are far more engaging and interesting to facilitate and assess than vocabulary quizzes or homework problems. 

Thus, answering the question, "How do you teach core content if you're always playing games and simulations?" is an easy exercise; we play with it.