Bulletin March 2015

The Bulletin is the student newsletter of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Printed eight times during the academic year, and updated continually online, the Bulletin profiles PhD and master's students and reports on GSAS news and events.

ABLConnect allows educators to share successful strategies

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Leslie Finger and Dustin Tingley expanded ABLConnect to a platform that today includes contributions from institutions like MIT, Yale, MassBay Community College, and Cornell and is home to over three hundred lesson plan ideas.

 

When Dustin Tingley taught the Department of Government class “International Conflict and Cooperation,” his students learned firsthand the role that partisan politics play in shaping the American response to international crises.

For one lesson, he briefed the students on a natural disaster in Bangladesh and broke them up into groups of representatives for all of the branches of government and agencies that come together to coordinate humanitarian action abroad. “It was pretty funny,” Tingley, the Paul Sack Associate Professor of Political Economy, says. “The Democrats and Republicans played their roles to a tee, refusing to talk to one another.” Eventually, though, they did what Democrats and Republicans often can’t manage to do. “They came together and reached a consensus.”

Tingley came to active learning as a high-school math teacher at the Darrow School in Upstate New York. “I realized pretty early that I could increase motivation and engagement by having an active learning component for something that for some people is otherwise a somewhat boring subject,” he remembers.

As Tingley contends, there’s nothing that makes high-school math especially boring: anything can be boring if students are not given a chance to find their personal stake in the material. And on the flip side, anything can be interesting if they are. “I had students play rock, paper, scissors against each other, and then we learned how to use basic algebra to analyze that game,” he says. “When you can use math to analyze a game, it becomes much more engaging.”

Soon after Tingley came to Harvard in 2010, he focused his efforts on finding a method that would enable teachers to bring active learning into their classrooms more easily and share their creative approaches to a wide range of subjects. “Everyone has great teaching ideas, but we’re all busy and spread across different departments,” he explains. “The idea was to collect all of these ideas together in one place so that people who want to use these techniques don’t always have to reinvent the wheel.”

At the inception of what would later become ABLConnect, a website that aims to help university-level instructors apply active learning techniques in the classroom, Tingley spoke to faculty and graduate students to learn more about their innovative teaching tactics. “I asked myself, why am I the only one hearing these great ideas?” With the support of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and later the Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching and the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, he launched ABLConnect.

Together with Leslie Finger, a graduate student in the Department of Government, Tingley expanded ABLConnect to a platform that today includes contributions from institutions like MIT, Yale, MassBay Community College, and Cornell and is home to over three hundred lesson plan ideas. These inventive approaches range from asking students to research a cancer pathway by focusing on Angelina Jolie’s BRCA1 breast-cancer mutation to assigning members of the class various medieval Chinese religions and asking them to convince the “unconverted” members of the class to join the one they espouse.

As this broad range of disciplines demonstrates, Tingley and Finger are working to make ABLConnect maximally useful to the Harvard community and beyond. “We hope to make ABLConnect as crosscutting as possible,” Finger says.

ABLConnect is just one example of the efforts to encourage active and activity-based learning at Harvard that date back several decades. According to Terry Aladjem, director of special initiatives at the Bok Center, “the Bok Center has actively supported these kinds of initiatives among faculty for years.” Virginia Maurer, associate director at the Bok Center, says that while the common perception among faculty and teaching fellows is that active learning is good because it wakes students up and gets them excited, in reality there’s more to it than that. “There’s often a very sound pedagogical reason for doing what you’re doing—it’s not just that it’s fun.”

As Aladjem sees it, ABLConnect is part of a changing tide in a university-wide attitude toward innovative teaching methods, a change of which Tingley was at the forefront and that received a substantial boost from Dean Michael D. Smith of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2011.

Today, word of mouth is one of the strongest forces promoting an interest in active learning. “When I first started teaching, it would never have occurred to me to do something else besides lecturing,” Aladjem recalls. “What’s happening now gives instructors permission to do something different—people want to try new teaching methods because their peers are trying them, too.”

Whether you’re discussing the ethics of abortion or planning a mid-term astrophysics review using Jeopardy, there’s something for everyone at ABLConnect.

Want to share your creative teaching ideas with other graduate students and faculty? Contact Leslie Finger.

 

Story credit: Lusia Zaitseva
Photo credit: Molly Akin
 

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