what if the traditional and student-centered pedagogies go together?

I’m helping with the evaluation of a civic education curriculum. I don’t want to go into details because this is an unpublished evaluation for a specific organization in a particular context. However, I have observed an interesting pattern and wonder what explains it and whether it generalizes.

We asked both the students and the teachers about various pedagogies. For instance, the students were asked to evaluate statements like these (among others):

  • Memorizing facts was the best way to get a good grade from teachers my classes.
  • Teachers lectured, and the students took notes.
  • Students were encouraged to make up their own minds about issues.
  • Teachers encouraged students to express their opinions during class.

Their teachers were asked about the same list of pedagogies, but the questions for them were phrased in terms of how much they used each approach.

The goal was to distinguish various approaches and then correlate them with things like the number of correct answers to factual questions, students’ skills, and their beliefs about democracy. Then we could see whether, for example, students who discussed issues more in class were more confident about their skills for discussion. The findings wouldn’t be causal, but they would be suggestive.

In the actual data, the most teacher-centric and the most student-centric approaches (if you can accept those descriptions) correlated. For instance, there was a positive correlation (0.29) between “Teachers encouraged students to discuss political or social issues about which people have different opinions” and “Memorizing facts was the best way to get a good grade from teachers in my classes.” Likewise, there was positive correlation (0.28) between “Most students felt free to express opinions in class even when their opinions were different from most of the other students” and “Teachers required students to memorize facts or definitions.” The correlations were even larger in the teacher data.

Most of the student outcomes–especially their ability to answer factual questions–correlated positively with all of the pedagogies. Students were more likely to know the facts if their teachers lectured and if they discussed issues–not surprisingly, since these two pedagogies correlated with each other.

One interpretation is that some students just got more of everything than the others–their “dosage” was higher. But I don’t think so, based on what I know about the intervention. Besides, the questions weren’t phrased in a way that should measure dosage.

Another interpretation is that these approaches should and do complement each other. I can certainly see why good teachers might say both “I encouraged students to express their opinions during class” and “I placed great importance on students learning facts.” (These responses were correlated at 0.8).

A third interpretation is that these questions don’t yield valid data, because teachers and students are not very aware of the pedagogies they experience, and are especially unaware of how their experiences compare to others’.

I’m wondering whether the positive correlation between apparently contrasting teaching styles is commonly observed.

Four Threats to American Democracy

On Friday, September 25, from 12–12:45 p.m., I’ll be moderating a Zoom conversation with Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman about their new book, Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. You can join us online.

The four threats are: partisan polarization, efforts to exclude some people from the polity, economic inequality, and executive aggrandizement. Mettler and Lieberman provide vivid historical narratives of five previous moments in US history when one or more of these threats almost brought us down. These narratives are compelling: well-told, full of overlooked but relevant characters and details, and suspenseful. They show that our republic has often hung by a thread. Worse, the solution to the threat of polarization has often been to forge an elite bipartisan consensus at the expense of society’s least advantaged, who have always included people of African descent. For instance, the truly dangerous partisan conflict of 1800 yielded to the “Era of Good Feelings” because of a bipartisan consensus to uphold slavery.

Mettler and Lieberman argue that although we have faced one or more of these threats before, now is the first time all four have come together.

We’ll discuss their argument, consider some of the historical cases, and focus especially on what we should do now.

make the Supreme Court much bigger

The Supreme Court of Spain has 79 judges. The Federal Constitutional Court of Germany has 16 members. The Constitutional Court of Italy has 15, but Italy is like many countries that also has a final appeals court for regular cases, and that tribunal is staffed by 350 judges.

I mention these examples in the context of arguments for “packing” our Supreme Court. Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to expand the court is usually presented as an example of executive overreach and a partisan ploy that backfired. But the problem with the current court is now critical.

Who would imagine that the following system could work? 1) One court has final jurisdiction over many fundamental issues that confront the society. 2) The public is divided over those issues. 3) There are two political parties, which hold incompatible views on those issues. 4) Justices appointed by each party regularly and predictably vote to decide cases in line with their respective party’s position. 5) Justices serve for life terms. 6) The president can nominate anyone he wants to be a justice. 7) A majority of the Senate must confirm. 8) The president and the Senate may be controlled by the same or by different parties.

Once those eight conditions are in place, it’s more or less inevitable that presidents will be unable to replace Supreme Court vacancies unless their party controls the Senate, but when it does, they will be able to confirm virtually anyone they like to a life term. The defeats of Bork and Garland simply reflected opposition parties making rational decisions in the system they were given, and we should expect tit-for-tat from now on.

As I showed in a previous post, there have been periods when Supreme Court nominations have been uncontroversial. Those have been times of bipartisan elite consensus about constitutional questions. When that consensus has broken down, confirmations have been deeply contentious and the outcomes have been determined, to a large extent, by the luck of who controls which branch at which time.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would establish staggered terms for Supreme Court justices so that replacements become frequent. The stakes of each nomination would fall, and every president would be expected to have a strong but temporary impact on the court–as presidents influence the FCC. But this reform would require a constitutional amendment, since Article III, Sec. 1 decrees life terms.

An alternative is to change the number of justices. That is constitutional, since the number is set by a statute. But I’d change it a lot–to something like 25. Then turnover would be frequent, and the stakes of each appointment would be fairly low. I’d complement that change with a Senate rule that allows nominations to go through unless blocked by a super-majority.

In a large court, most cases are assigned to smaller panels–sometimes by lottery. There are reasonable processes for doing that. A larger court also has a much better chance of representing the diversity of the American people.

Letting the next president name 16 new justices seems a bit much (even if that president’s name turns out to be Joe), so I’d increase the size of the court by one seat every year for the next 16 years.

See also: reforms for a broken Supreme Court;  is our constitutional order doomed?are we seeing the fatal flaw of a presidential constitution?,  two perspectives on our political paralysis,  and the changing norms for Supreme Court nominations.

game theory games meant to play well on Zoom

It makes sense to introduce game theory by playing some games. Many online and in-person games are available for that purpose. A useful list of reviews is here. I could not, however, find games that would play well in a large virtual course, especially without a significant registration fee. So I made some up, and they seemed to work well in a class of 62 students yesterday. I am making them available here.

The games simulate:

  1. A pandemic at a university. (How much does each student comply with social distancing?)
  2. Carbon policy. (How much does each country reduce its emissions?)
  3. Carbon policy with negotiations; and
  4. An iterated commons game involving fishing.

Instructions are provided in the first sheet. In brief, an instructor should …

  1. Show students each sheet of the spreadsheet in turn.
  2. Read or briefly explain the scenario at the top. Do not answer questions about what the students’ objectives should be or what defines winning. Let them just play.
  3. Field a survey–using Zoom or another platform–with the choices that are presented in each scenario. E.g., The response options for the first scenario (the college pandemic) should be 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4.
  4. Enter the data from the survey in the grey cells of the sheet (e.g., cells B14-B18 in the college pandemic scenario). The other cells are all locked.

(In the second climate game, students should talk in breakout groups before they take the survey individually. In the fishing game, there are three rounds.)

  1. Discuss the results shown in the rest of each table once the data are entered.

Here are some questions for discussion:

  • A game has parameters–for example, the number of players, the choices they can make, and whether players can talk. What other parameters can you think of that go into a game? How do you know whether the parameters are right for the situation?
  • What assumptions do we make by using a game to model/represent/explain the real world?
  • What kinds of situations–if any–can game theory help to explain? (You might think of other examples or general categories of situations that games seem useful for.)
  • What kinds of questions can game theory probably not answer?
  • When introducing his idea of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin talks about the “solemnity of the relentless working of things,” “the inevitableness of destiny,” and “the futility of escape.” Did we see evidence today that disaster is inevitable when people try to coordinate their behavior? If not, is there anything valuable in Hardin’s idea?

You’re likely to get some intriguing specific results. For instance, when my students played the carbon-policy game, the global results were pretty good. (They’re a bunch of environmentalists.) I then put them in small groups to simulate negotiations before surveying them again. After their discussions, the global impact on carbon worsened. It appears that some of the groups became small conspiracies against the common good. Specifically, some students persuaded each other that they could get away with emitting more carbon.

To test whether this result generalizes, you would have to repeat it with controls. Maybe the result worsened just because it was the second try. In any case, it is fun to discuss the concrete results, form hypotheses, and connect the games to the real world.

See also: why learn game theory? (a lesson plan that includes a game) and these posts about game theory.

theorizing democracy in a pandemic

This is newly published: Peter Levine, “Theorizing Democracy in a Pandemic,” Democratic Theory, vol. 2, issue 2 (Winter 2020), pp. 134-142 https://doi.org/10.3167/dt.2020.070216. Abstract:

The COVID-19 pandemic raises questions about the future of democracy and civil society. Some recent predictions seem to use the suffering to score points in ongoing political arguments. As a better example of how to describe the future during a crisis, I cite the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. King does not merely predict: he calls for action, joins the action, and makes himself responsible for its success or failure. With these cautions about prediction in mind, I venture two that may guide immediate responses. First, communities may erect or strengthen unjustifiable barriers to outsiders, because boundaries enhance collective action. Second, although the pandemic may not directly change civic behavior, an economic recession will bankrupt some organizations through which people engage.

The whole special issue on Democracy in the Time of COVID-19 looks interesting and is currently available for free.