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Classroom Activity: Simplification is not a Sin

February 5, 2014

Editor’s note: this is a slightly modified version of a post that originally appeared on my personal blog.

As I mentioned here, I’ve decided to try “flipping the classroom” this semester, meaning I’m now posting the lectures online and using the class time this frees up for Q&A and for activities meant to reinforce core concepts and create strong incentives for students to keep up with the lectures from week to week. These activities will take a variety of forms, and I’ll post about each one in case anyone out there is interested.

Look below the fold for a description of the first activity.

This activity is meant to reinforce the role of simplification. It is less a test of their understanding of the material (as most future activities will be) than my attempt to convince my students that fairly significant distortions often do very little to diminish the recognizability of what is being modeled. Though some of the other activities I have planned will use up a full class period (in my case, that’s 50 minutes), this one is very brief and only takes a few minutes.

(As such, fewer points are at stake than will be true of other activities. By the end of the semester, across all 15 activities, students will have had a chance to earn 300 points. The class activities comprise 30% of their grade, so every point is worth 0.1% of their overall grade in the course. This activity only offers 5 points.)

First, I showed them the following pictures and told them that if they could identify three of the four flags, they’d earn two points.

Of course, it helps that I chose very recognizable flags. A tricolor in black and white would be much harder to identify. But I’m not sure how many of my students could identify the flags for many other countries even if they weren’t distorted.

I then showed them these pictures and told them that if they can identify three of the four celebrities, they’d earn three points.

I didn’t expect this to be a whole lot more difficult, and for most students it wasn’t. However, I realized after the fact that I should have made the point a different way, for reasons I discuss below.

The point I meant to illustrate, which I think came through for most students, is that none of us believes we live in a world of black and white, nor one in which people lack eyes. Yet those features are, for some purposes, inessential. Similarly, if I present a theoretical model in which two unitary states must decide whether to cooperate with one another, one could easily point out that states are not unitary actors, or that there are more than two states in the system. Both of those things are absolutely true, and for some purposes, cannot be ignored. But depending on the question we’re asking, assuming away domestic politics and systemic effects is no more distorting than throwing black bars over people’s in photographs or removing the color from national flags. My goal is to get my students to go from asking “does the real world look like this?” to asking “does it matter that the real world unquestionably doesn’t look exactly like this?”

As I acknowledged above, though, the pictures of celebrities didn’t work as well as I’d intended. I asked my students if anyone who had a hard time identifying any of the celebrities thought that they wouldn’t have if they could have seen the eyes. A few said yes, specifically Jennifer Lawrence. If that was the only issue, I’d swap out the picture of her for one of someone who is more recognizable or whose most recognizable feature is not their eyes. But the more important concern, which I really should have anticipated, is that international students had a much harder time with the second half of the activity than the other students. That was insensitive on my part, so I ended up giving all the students who submitted responses full credit. I think the activity worked well over all, and so will do something similar again in the future, but I won’t use pictures of celebrities. If anyone has any suggestions for something that would be similar in spirit but more likely to transcend culture, I’d love to hear about in the comments.

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I am an assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I mostly write here about "rational choice" and IR theory. I also maintain my own blog,