Political Action and Political Consequences: Are they Linked?

Christopher Alcantara raised a very important question, and an empirical one! Do group op-eds have an effect on political outcomes? The question is framed within the fields of public opinion and public policy. On the one hand, he is correct. Public opinion is not easily swayed by such communications. Op-eds, editorials, columns, and the media in general do not yield a strong influence on public opinion, other than to affect the priorities people attach to various issues. To paraphrase Cohen: the media doesn’t change how you think about an issue, but it can change what you think about).

Those with strongly formed opinions, the “partisans” among us, are especially resistant to media messages that contradict their views. And while there are members of the public who can be swayed, chances are, they are not reading such op-eds.

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On the other hand, the media has been shown to affect the policy agenda. Policy actors have been shown to respond to media attention to an issue, and sometimes, this media-policy dynamic is stronger than the public opinion-policy dynamic. The process is not simple and clean, however. Conditions that lead a media communication, such as an op-ed, to have any sort of influence over the policy agenda are varied: the framing of the op-ed, what is being primed, the issue domain, tone, placement, and so forth. These elements form part of the so-called “second level” agenda-setting research program, which looks at how a media communication, such as an op-ed, structures an argument, and how those structures can yield an affect.

So op-eds (or group-authored op-eds) hold some potential to affect the policy agenda. Here, we are talking about the media-policy nexus, and the media-policy nexus may have less to do with the psychological variables familiar to those who study public opinion. Instead, consider variables from the domain of group politics. Here are some:

  1. Group coherence. A group with factionally divided members will struggle to gain “respect” from state decision makers, and thus, demands from such a group can be safely ignored.
  2. Viable equilibrium point. Does the op-ed help the various stakeholders (both state actors and the broader policy community) move towards some equilibrium, i.e., a solution?
  3. Group organization. An op-ed may be just one tactic of a broader strategy or campaign. A group may have prepared a more elaborate and carefully considered campaign that includes other actions as well, and together, these may wield more weight.
  4. State actors’ openness. You can shout as loud and clear as you like, but at the end of the day, is there anybody listening? Groups that wish to influence the policy process need “access” to the key decision makers. State actors unwilling to give any a group a proper hearing effectively limit that group’s potential to influence policy.

This is not an exhaustive list of variables. But it does offer a way to begin a more systematic examination of the potential of media items such as op-eds. Maybe they are completely useless. Or maybe they can grab the attention of implicated state actors within a particular policy community, who then, for whatever reason, respond to the “challenging group” (to use Bill Gamson’s words).

In sum, the potential ability of an op-ed to influence policy decisions would have to be examined in light of what we know about the public policy process. It’s not a straight-forward communication-influence dynamic. It is heavily context dependent.

Professors, Elections Canada, and the Harper Government: Do Group Op-Eds Matter?

Early last week, the National Post ran a letter drafted by a small group of Canadian university professors (you can tell who the original letter writers by the order. Just look at where the alphabetized list starts and any names above it were the main writers), and signed (and edited) by a larger number of professors (including some of the most distinguished, senior, and smartest academic minds in Canada).

Several days before the letter ran in the Post, a draft of the letter hit my desk asking for my signature. Ultimately, I didn’t sign for a number of reasons. The main reason I didn’t sign was that I didn’t agree with all of the contents in the letter. There are parts of the “Fair Elections” bill that I agree with, other parts that I didn’t, and other parts that I simply wasn’t sure about. The timeline for signing the letter was tight and didn’t really give me much time to think these issues through.

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Another reason why I didn’t sign was because, quite frankly, I’m not sure how effective these types of op eds are. If you have a chance, you should check out the comments left on the National Post page about the letter. To be succinct, they are nasty! There’s all sorts of anti-elitist rhetoric about professors being overpaid and narrow-minded (with some anonymous commentators regaling readers about their bad experiences at universities). Others claimed that professors are all Liberal-NDP supporters, or are at least ideologically aligned with those political parties. We are also experts with no real knowledge, apparently, who hide behind our PhDs and “peer review” to stifle dissent, etc.

To be fair, there were some defenders of professors (thank you!), remarking about the important expertise and knowledge that the profession have to offer. But the dominant discourse was negative.

In my view, it seems group letters bring out a certain amount of dissent towards the profession. Have a look at op-eds written by only one or two professors at a time; occasionally, you do see one or two anti-professor rants, but rarely very many. When we write these group letters, however, there seems to be many of these comments. So, do group-think letters actually help or hinder our ability to communicate with and affect public opinion and public policy?

In terms of public opinion, my sense is that these letters are not effective. Recent research suggests that most people have gut feelings about various issues or things, whether it be politics, religion or food, and then they search for justification for their gut reactions. (Frequently, I’ve been wondering whether the same phenomenon is at work in academic peer review?!) And so I think op-eds are built exactly for this type of behaviour. People don’t change their minds because of op-eds. They use them to feed their gut reactions.

How about public policy? Do these op-eds affect public policy? Well, I’m pretty sure Harper won’t be convinced by these types of letters but I do know that civil servants, including deputy ministers, scan op-ed pages for ideas. So maybe these letters will ultimately push civil servants to act in a way to thwart these reforms?

For me personally, I have yet to sign one of these group-think letters. Instead I’ve treated the op-eds that I write (and sign) as knowledge dissemination tools, trying to link current events either to my research, or the research of others.

But maybe I should have signed! I’ll guess we’ll see when the next letter gets circulated.

To Accept or Not Accept the Canadian State? The Situation Facing Aboriginal Women

Last week, the Globe and Mail published the following headline and newstory:

“Fear of retaliation stops native women from filing rights complaints, commissioner warns”

According to the story:

“What we learned,” wrote Mr. Langtry in his annual report released Tuesday, “is that for many of them, particularly in remote communities, the Canadian Human Rights Act is meaningless. They are unlikely to seek its protections, they say, for a number of reasons, including fear of retaliation.”

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But lawyers working in the area of aboriginal justice said the Canadian human-rights regime can be somewhat ineffective on reserves where chiefs and council members don’t view themselves as being accountable to outside legal regimes.

Some aboriginal women told the human-rights commission they fear that the mere act of lodging a complaint against the police or powerful members of their communities will leave them without access to important health and social services or could lead to intimidation and acts of violence.

“Truth be told, some leaders are offenders of violence against women,” one of the native women told the commission. “It’s so entrenched, many women live in fear. That is our sad reality, and it’s tough.”

One of the big conundrums for students of Aboriginal policy in this country is what should the role of the state be with respect to Indigenous communities. A popular position among Indigenous scholars is that the Canadian state should have little to no role and there are good reasons why they have taken this position. You don’t need to be a scholar to come to this conclusion! All you have to do is look at the Indian Act, residential schools, Canada’s history of treaty-making and implementation, to understand why some Indigenous people would be suspicious and wary of the Canadian state.

On the other hand, it is stories like these ones that convince me that sometimes there is a role for the Canadian state. In the ideal world, Indigenous communities are able to manage and solve these problems themselves. Indeed, many Indigenous cultures, traditionally speaking, were led by women, or at least had very strong gender equality and/or equity. But, due to a variety of factors, including colonialism, that tradition has been lost and replaced with something much more sinister and violent. In those situations, I wonder whether the ends justify the means? In other words, it may be that the only option available in the short term is protection from the Canadian state, either in the form of legal mechanisms or legal actors.

Reflections on the Flipped Classroom: Lessons from Year Two and My Lesson Plan on Social Class

Last year, I used the flipped classroom pedagogy to deliver my first year seminar on “Understanding Conflict and Cooperation Through Film: Making Sense of the Politics of the 21st Century.” The results, as I’ve blogged about before, were pretty exciting: near full engagement from students; extremely high levels of attendance throughout the term; improved writing and oral communication skills; and high quality critical thinking, debate, and discussion.

So this year, I was excited to teach the course again, only this time with some modifications based on some of the lessons I learned from my first go around. These included posting participation grades after each class, adding an extra assignment to fill a “homework” gap in my course scheduling, and fixing some of the units, among other things.

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This year, so far at least, has been quite different from the previous year. There have been some classroom management issues, a slower buy in among students to the logic and activities of the class, and an alarming trend with respect to attendance and assignment completion. The latter has been the most concerning, with somewhere between 7 and 11 out of 13 students showing up to class on a regular basis. Indeed, the average attendance tends to hover around 60-75%, far below my 95%-100% average last year. Also troubling is that usually only about half the class completes the major assignments (e.g. the summative papers and the formative online quizzes).

So what is going on here? I’m using the same model and the same exercises (with some improvements), but with different results.

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on. Some possibilities include:

a) the first time I taught the course, it was in the first term and this year it’s in the second term. Perhaps Fall term first year students are more open to this type of course because they have yet to be socialized into the university environment. By the winter term, it’s too late and so it takes more effort to get them to buy into the course structure.

b) last year, the course was in a regular classroom with crappy wifi. This year, this course is being held in the active learning classroom, which is bathed in and pulsates with wifi and so students are able to surf the internet more than they were able to last year.

c) course title effects: last year, the course was advertised as “Understanding Conflict and Cooperation Through Film” whereas this year it is “Making Sense of the Politics of the 21st Century.”

d) random sampling differentials: maybe I just got two really different groups of students.

The good news is that the course is getting better, approximating the type of outcomes I was getting last year. Last week’s class was on social class. Students read two readings, completed a quiz and then came to class where they heard a 10 minute lecture on the social class (covering the issues they had trouble with from the quiz).

Then we played monopoly for 30 minutes, and then stratified monopoly for another 30 minutes. We then discussed what happened at each board, how each player felt, how each player did or did not take up the persona of their social class, etc. It was an extremely interesting and indepth discussion, with the students linking their experiences to the readings (e.g. means of production; the merits and flaws of capitalism; the barriers and relationships inherent in social class; habitus dislocation, etc.).

After a short break, I divided the students into pairs and asked them to play the following online game: http://playspent.org/ Students were asked to record and then discuss the various choices they made as a single working class parent trying to survive a typical month. Students had to make choices and tradeoffs as they decided between work, leisure, housing, medical bills, and the like. We ended the activity with a discussion about the barriers, tradeoffs, and resources available to working class individuals and families.

Students seem to come away with an appreciation of some of the real world implications of social class. Indeed, students mentioned at the end how they liked that the activities helped them experience some of the things mentioned in the readings.

I’m optimistic that this class was a turning point. Time will tell!

Cryptocurrency and Indigenous Sovereignty: A New Tool?

Forbes magazine reports that the Lakota Nation has created its own cryptocurrency called, MazaCoin, which is now the official currency of the Lakota Nation. According to the report:

“Standing on the banks of the Little Bighorn River last year, a son of the once-mighty Oglala Lakota Tribe made a promise to continue his ancestors’ fight against the United States. Only this time the war wouldn’t be fought with arrows or bullets, but with QR codes and cryptography.”

It’s an interesting idea on a a whole number of fronts. For those Indigenous communities interested in capitalism, but also increasing Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, the cryptocurrency may be a useful tool, especially if a large number of Indigenous groups adopts one common cryptocurrency as their main currency.

It would mean economically freeing itself from the confines of the Canadian/American economy, and generating all sorts of investment revenue to engage in economic development.

The idea has a lot of merit and there has to be an article to be written here somewhere! I better get on it!

Knowledge Mobilization and the Academy: A Guest Post from Dr. Erin Tolley

Below is an excellent guest post on knowledge mobilization from Dr. Erin Tolley, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. It provides some very practical and timely advice for those of us filling in the knowledge mobilization section of our SSHRC grants!


A few weeks ago, Chris Alcantara wrote a great post about knowledge mobilization and the communication of research results to non-academic audiences. In his post and the comments that followed, Chris raised a number of questions about how best to facilitate knowledge transfer and asked, in particular, if we need a “rethink” of traditional modes of communicating research results.

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I would come down firmly on the side of yes, particularly if your aim is to engage government decision-makers and policy analysts. This is true now more than ever, with austerity measures pinching bureaucrats’ time, and budgets for training and travel having been all but gutted. Whereas many government departments once maintained their own in-house libraries, these have largely been shuttered leaving policy analysts without any reference support and no access to the scholarly books and gated journals to which most academics direct their publishing efforts. With luck, an enterprising policy analyst might be able to direct some government resources toward the purchase of policy-relevant research publications, but this is rare. Even rarer would be the opportunity to attend a conference outside the bounds of the National Capital Region to hear academics present their research. That said, in the mid-level of the public service, there are increasing levels of education. Most new policy analysts now have at least a Master’s degree, and many have PhDs. Given this, there is an appetite for research, in addition to the skills and qualifications to understand and apply those insights.

This is not, then, a matter of “dumbing down” but rather of communicating the findings in ways that speak to the target audience. Long discussions about the theoretical framework or the extant literature will not interest most policy analysts. Too much methodological detail will bore or distract. No tables of regression coefficients! No p-values! Tell your audience which parts of your research are significant and really matter. If they would like more details, they will ask.

What will interest this audience most is the policy relevance and implications of your research. What do your findings tell policy-makers about their policy area? Where are the policy gaps? What are the most fruitful areas for action? (Hint: this should be something other than “More research is needed”).

To do this effectively, you need to know your audience. Read the legislation or policies that are most relevant to your field of study. Consult recent Standing Committee reports or other parliamentary publications. Take a look at the media releases from the government departments most centrally connected to your work. Read the department’s most recent Report on Plans and Priorities. Search the Government Employee Directory (GEDS) for the names of policy analysts who work in your field. Contact them. Talk to them. Ask them questions about what they do. Use this to inform your research.

When you communicate your results, remember the constraints that policy analysts face: limited dedicated reading time, tight deadlines, and a need for concise communication. Can you put your results into a “2-pager” that gives a brief synopsis of your work, your main findings and their policy relevance? CERIS has an excellent template. Include your email address. Send it to policy analysts working in your field. Post it on your personal webpage or in any other “Googleable” format. Write an op-ed about your work. Maintain a social media presence.

Contact one of your policy contacts and ask if they would be interested in having you present your work to their colleagues. Most departments have a “Brown Bag” lunch series, and they’re generally quite happy to host researchers with relevant new findings. Make the most of these opportunities when they arise. Don’t present a conference paper; policy analysts prefer PowerPoint or a handout. Provide it in advance. Make contacts once you’re there. Follow-up with them. And don’t ask—even jokingly—if they will give you money for your research. You can save that for the second date.

Erin Tolley is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Prior to pursing doctoral studies, she worked for nearly a decade in the federal government.

Should We Change the Grant Adjudication Process? Part 2!

Previously, I blogged about the need to reconsider how we adjudicate research grant competitions.

Others agree:

Researchers propose alternative way to allocate science funding

HEIDELBERG, 8 January 2014 – Researchers in the United States have suggested an alternative way to allocate science funding. The method, which is described in EMBO reports, depends on a collective distribution of funding by the scientific community, requires only a fraction of the costs associated with the traditional peer review of grant proposals and, according to the authors, may yield comparable or even better results.
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“Peer review of scientific proposals and grants has served science very well for decades. However, there is a strong sense in the scientific community that things could be improved,” said Johan Bollen, professor and lead author of the study from the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. “Our most productive researchers invest an increasing amount of time, energy, and effort into writing and reviewing research proposals, most of which do not get funded. That time could be spent performing the proposed research in the first place.” He added: “Our proposal does not just save time and money but also encourages innovation.”

The new approach is possible due to recent advances in mathematics and computer technologies. The system involves giving all scientists an annual, unconditional fixed amount of funding to conduct their research. All funded scientists are, however, obliged to donate a fixed percentage of all of the funding that they previously received to other researchers. As a result, the funding circulates through the community, converging on researchers that are expected to make the best use of it. “Our alternative funding system is inspired by the mathematical models used to search the internet for relevant information,” said Bollen. “The decentralized funding model uses the wisdom of the entire scientific community to determine a fair distribution of funding.”

The authors believe that this system can lead to sophisticated behavior at a global level. It would certainly liberate researchers from the time-consuming process of submitting and reviewing project proposals, but could also reduce the uncertainty associated with funding cycles, give researchers much greater flexibility, and allow the community to fund risky but high-reward projects that existing funding systems may overlook.

“You could think of it as a Google-inspired crowd-funding system that encourages all researchers to make autonomous, individual funding decisions towards people, not projects or proposals,” said Bollen. “All you need is a centralized web site where researchers could log-in, enter the names of the scientists they chose to donate to, and specify how much they each should receive.”

The authors emphasize that the system would require oversight to prevent misuse, such as conflicts of interests and collusion. Funding agencies may need to confidentially monitor the flow of funding and may even play a role in directing it. For example they can provide incentives to donate to specific large-scale research challenges that are deemed priorities but which the scientific community can overlook.

“The savings of financial and human resources could be used to identify new targets of funding, to support the translation of scientific results into products and jobs, and to help communicate advances in science and technology,” added Bollen. “This funding system may even have the side-effect of changing publication practices for the better: researchers will want to clearly communicate their vision and research goals to as wide an audience as possible.”

Awards from the National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Institutes of Health supported the work.

From funding agencies to scientific agency: Collective allocation of science funding as an alternative to peer review

Johan Bollen, David Crandall, Damion Junk, Ying Ding, and Katy Börner

Read the paper:

doi: 10.1002/embr.201338068
On the one hand, some might argue that the system would be hijacked by logrolling and network effects. But if the system had strong accountability and transparency measures, which involved researchers disclosing expenditures, outcomes, and which researchers they financially supported, I think some of the possible negative effects would disappear.

It’s a neat idea and someone needs to try it. It could be SSHRC creating a special research fund that worked in this way: everyone who applied would receive money (equally divided among the applicants) and would have to donate a fixed portion of their money to others. Or maybe a university could try it with some internal funding.


Hat tip to marginal revolution for this story.

French affair would never happen in Ottawa

Published Jan. 6, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

No matter where you were late last week, from Detroit to Doha and all points in between, you could not have escaped the media coverage of the amorous secret life of the president of France, François Hollande.

Pictures and breathless accounts of the president’s late-night trysts with Julie Gayet, a glamorous film actress, were top of the news everywhere, starting with the French edition of Closer magazine, which had staked out the couple’s love nest.

Yes, it was big news, so big that it pushed Rob Ford off the front page of Saturday’s Toronto Star. That big.

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President Hollande, let it be said, is not cut from the same cloth as the sexy leading men with whom Gayet appears in her steamy (if not overly artistic) films. He is middle-aged, balding, bespectacled and a bit pudgy. Gayet is drop-dead gorgeous, thereby confirming the validity of an observation made by the dumpy Henry Kissinger (who knew whereof he spoke) that power is the greatest aphrodisiac of all.

My first thought was, well, this is France after all. In France, it is virtually assumed that men of wealth or power will take a mistress (or two or three) and that their significant others will take a lover (or two or three). Extramarital adventures merit no more than a Gallic shrug from the public and, traditionally, from the French media, too.

Affairs are nothing new in French presidential history — President Valérie Giscard d’Estaing survived a car crash while returning from a sleepover with a lover. President Jacques Chirac was rumoured to have had as many as 40 mistresses (consecutively, that is); he kept himself so busy that he was privately known as “five minutes, shower included.” François Mitterrand kept the love child he had with his mistress, Anne Pingeot, secret for most of his two terms as president. President Nicolas Sarkozy dumped his second wife to take up with supermodel Carla Bruni, whom he later wed.

In France, the off-duty behaviour of political leaders is regarded as being less reprehensible than the publicizing of that conduct. Hence, Gayet and Hollande, while not denying their relationship, are proposing, quite separately, to sue French media organizations for invasion of privacy, a crime punishable in France with a very stiff fine and a year in jail.

Protection of privacy is a concern among politicians everywhere. There used to be a “conspiracy of silence” between journalists and politicians in which intimate indiscretions, although gossiped about, were not reported. Everyone, except the general public, knew about John F. Kennedy’s many dalliances. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson’s love child with a slave girl and Franklin Roosevelt’s mistress were kept secret, to mention just a couple of examples.

The conspiracy of silence began to break down in the 1960s: with the John Profumo-Christine Keeler scandal in Britain; the Gerda Munsinger-Pierre Sevigny sex and security scandal in Canada; and in the United States with Teddy Kennedy and the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick. These stories were too big, too important to be dismissed with shrug, Gallic or otherwise.

As noted, my first reaction to last week’s revelations from Paris was to think, this is France, after all, and the French have a different, perhaps healthier, attitude to sex than people in other places. My second thought was, this could never happen in Ottawa. Could it?

Can you imagine seven pages in a Canadian magazine devoted to the nocturnal activities of Stephen Harper? First, the pictures show a beautiful woman arriving at an apartment block in, say, Ottawa’s Lower Town. Next an RCMP bodyguard arrives to check out the premises. Then the prime minister arrives on the back of a chauffeur-driven scooter. In the morning, the bodyguard returns with a bag of fresh croissants for the hungry lovers, who then go their separate ways. That’s what happened in Paris.

No, it could never happen in Ottawa — although the capital might be a more interesting place if it could.

The pitfalls of a referendum

Published Dec. 18, 2013, in The Hamilton Spectator

Hamilton joins a growing list of cities all over North America where municipal water fluoridation is not just an important public health practice, but also a source of controversy. While Hamilton councillors recently rejected a proposal to hold a referendum on the issue, they turned over this discussion to the city’s medical officer of health to investigate the feasibility of a citizen task force, which will study the issue further.

A task force would, in our view, lead to far better decisions than a straight-off referendum. Although referendums can be powerful measures for citizens to govern themselves, they do not always produce an “informed” decision. More often than not, people do not carefully weigh the costs and benefits of various activities. Instead, they form judgments by using quick mental shortcuts.

Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls this “thinking quickly” rather than “thinking slowly.” Clearly, everyday citizens can rise to the occasion to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of public health initiatives like fluoridation: they just need the context, time, resources and opportunity to do so. And they rarely have much of that.

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Will Ford Nation prevail or fizzle in 2014?

Published Dec. 13, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

After pushing Toronto into the international media spotlight for some months, most of us have difficulty fathoming what motivates Mayor Rob Ford, or what sustains his bond with the apocryphally named “Ford Nation.”

Presumably it was coined as an ego-driven public relations gesture to simulate some ongoing affinity with the masses, as with “Maple Leaf Nation” or “Red Sox Nation.”

Without intending to linger obsessively upon the absurdly self-destructive and uncontrollable impulses of this man-child, whose emotional maturity suffers even in comparison with Justin Bieber or Charlie Sheen, he acts as if he can compensate for his blatant absence of remorse with multiple insincere apologies.

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Should we Apply Gender and Race Analysis to Everything?

According to some, the answer is yes.

So what to make of this article?

At first, I thought it was written “tongue-in-cheek”, but after reading it a second time, I’m not so sure!

And how about this one?

There’s no question that gender and race analyses have an important role to play in political science and we should be taking these perspectives more seriously than is usually the case.  But aren’t some domains more important, pervasive, and influential than others?  Angry Birds? Meh. Movember? Maybe.

Do University Ethics Review Boards Work?

After seeing this article, I’m not so sure! Here’s the abstract:


To test for any long-term effects on the death rates of domestic assault suspects due to arresting them versus warning them at the scene.


The Milwaukee Domestic Violence Experiment (MilDVE) employed a randomized experimental design with over 98 % treatment as assigned. In 1987–88, 1,200 cases with 1,128 suspects were randomly assigned to arrest or a warning in a 2:1 ratio. Arrested suspects were generally handcuffed and taken to a police station for about 3 to 12 h. Warned suspects were left at liberty at the scene after police read aloud a scripted statement. Death records were obtained in 2012–13 from the Wisconsin Office of Vital Statistics and the Social Security Death Index, with the support of the Milwaukee Police Department.” [emphasis added]

Can you say lawsuit?!

Hat tip to Kids Prefer Cheese.


Academia, Knowledge Mobilization, and Canadian Public Policy

Last week, I attended the State of the Federation Conference at Queen’s University. This year’s conference theme was on Aboriginal multilevel governance. The program was interesting, bringing together academics, activists, policymakers, and practitioners to talk about the role of Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian federation.

One of the keynote speakers was Michael Wernick, the current deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. His talk was interesting in a number of respects, but one of the most interesting was a comment he made about the role of ideas in public policy making.

Among other things, he said that government bureaucracies were not in the business of knowledge creation and innovation. Instead, it was the responsibility of academics to produce new ideas for government to consider and implement.

Of course the big question is: how does government access the ideas produced by academics?

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His answer was that one of the main sources was from newspapers and the op eds written by academics (and even social media)!

It was a surprising admission on a lot of fronts and the implications are significant.

First, academics clearly need to find creative ways to disseminate their research findings beyond the usual academic journals and books. Second, it reaffirms my current strategy of trying to summarize my academic findings through op eds. Third, in one sense, it shows that policymakers don’t have the time or interest to read and consume highly detailed, academic arguments. They value new ideas and research, but they want the bottom line; they want the policy implications, and are less interested, perhaps, in theory, empirics, and the like.

Finally, there is a serious need to rethink knowledge mobilization. The traditional route was conferences and invited talks, or good old fashioned reading! But perhaps there are better ways to facilitate knowledge transfer between policymakers and academics. Thoughts? Provide them in the comments.

Do Students Have Different Learning Styles?

The answer is no, according to Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham.

“So here is the punch line: Students differ in their abilities, interests, and background knowledge, but not in their learning styles. Students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning. As college educators, we should apply this to the classroom by continuing to present information in the most appropriate manner for our content and for the level of prior knowledge, ability, and interests of that particular set of students.”

So how does learning actually work? Well, Willingham argues in his book, “Why Kids Hate School“, that, quite simply, “we remember what we think about”.

Here’s a good summary,

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“According to Mr. Willingham, one major reason is what school requires students to do — think abstractly — is in fact not something our brains are designed to be good at or to enjoy. When we confront a task that requires us to exert mental effort, it is critical that the task be just difficult enough to hold our interest but not so difficult that we give up in frustration. When this balance is struck, it is actually pleasurable to focus the mind for long periods of time. For an example, just watch a person beavering away at a crossword or playing chess in a noisy public park. But schoolwork and classroom time rarely keep students’ minds in this state of “flow” for long. The result is boredom and displeasure. The challenge, for the teacher, is to design lessons and exercises that will maximize interest and attention and thus make students like school at least a bit more.”

So can lecturing produce effective learning? Yes, if you can lecture in a way that generates that magic sweet spot between student interest and frustration in the material (assuming, of course, that you can also in some way control for variation in individual abilities and background knowledge).

But I think most of us who lecture rarely produce that sweet spot for an extended period of time (whether during one class or over the course of a semester). Indeed, I am not a gifted public speaker or lecturer, and so I’ve turned to active learning and the flipped classroom to compensate. Flipped classroom allows me to produce the necessary learning environment (e.g. the sweet spot) to facilitate effective learning. It does this by forcing me to use a combination of readings, short recorded lectures, online quizzes, mini-lectures in class, group exercises/simulations/games in class, large and small-group discussions, and more, to generate that magic balance between interest and frustration. This, in turn, I think, can help students maintain interest in the content and hopefully encourage them to actively think about course materials before, during, and after class.

Of course, all of these strategies and assumptions are contingent on the reliability of the science! I haven’t read and assessed all of this science myself. Instead, I’m relying very much on summaries of the science from cognitive psychologists like Daniel Willingham and others, but the findings seem somewhat intuitive to me.

Flipped Classroom: The Basics

I’ve been getting a number of emails and phone calls about the flipped classroom model. Last week, for instance, an editor at the University of Toronto Press Higher Education asked me to write a guest blog that describes the basic model and how I use it to teach Canadian politics.

You can find that guest blog post here:

Anyone else use the flipped classroom pedagogy at the university level? Post your experiences in the comments section below!