Jason Charrette

Plymouth Voices: Professor Jason Charrette

Aidan Woods




Jason Charrette is a political science professor who is new to Plymouth State this year. In his short time here, it is already clear that he brings a fun and refreshing style of teaching to his classroom. Charrette is a proprietor of the “Active Learning” method of teaching meaning that he focuses on engaging students with tools such as simulations, and discussion-based activities rather than lectures. This style has the goals of leading to more student engagement and getting people to not only show up to class but also engage with the material because they want to learn, not just because they’re obligated to. In his interview, he talks about bringing this teaching method to Plymouth students as well as where it was adopted from. 

I would say you have what’s considered a unique style of teaching with simulations and discussion-based learning. Tell me a little bit about that style and why you choose to do it.

I got it as an ESL ( English as a second language) teacher. One of the key obstacles when you’re teaching English abroad, and I think anyone who’s ever learned a language will tell you this, is that you’re very self-conscious about speaking the language and making a mistake. So what you would do is play games. Sometimes they would be really simple. Sometimes they will be more elaborate. My undergraduate advisor was a career diplomat. He used to do these Model UN things where it’d be this big event. It really influenced me. Gamification of learning is a really powerful tool. If you ask anyone about their hobbies, they’ll tell you a lot about them, especially if they like games and stuff. When you play a game, you learn really complex rule sets without really realizing you’re learning. What happens is you have what we call intrinsic motivation to learn. 

I use simulations for two reasons. The first is that it’s fun it’s entertaining. The second is that it activates intrinsic learning. You want to learn. Sometimes it’s because you’re competitive, you want to win, sometimes you like just the participation itself, and sometimes it can be an engaging simulation. It got more and more complex over the years. It went from simple games to interactive scenarios. I think a big part of that is I realized that we all tell stories about ourselves. Learning is in itself another narrative. So my simulation went from a way to get people out of that headspace of being self-conscious to that competition, and then finally, to the idea of telling a story about whatever the topic is, yourself, and including you in that. It became a powerful way to connect people to the material. 

In American government, you’re teaching in this format, and it’s more of a first-year course, it’s entry-level political science. Do you find that younger students are more receptive to that type of learning? Or would you say that upper-level courses make a better environment for it? Or is it no real difference?

Playful people like to play games. I don’t think that’s necessarily an underclass or upper-class thing. The one obstacle is students. One of the things that I adopted is something called active learning. The mantra is the person who does the work, does the learning. I hate lectures so much because I’ve done all the preparation, and I’m presenting this to you. The problem is that you’re not doing any work. You’re sitting there. It’s like watching television. Yeah, you might be taking notes, but taking notes is just taking notes. Your brain isn’t actively engaged. My goal is to connect you to the material, have you like the material, and have a good time. Ultimately, the real obstacle that I have, are students who got really, really comfortable sitting there inert. So my philosophy is that I’m really about giving you an experience that you will remember and that will resonate with you. You did a lot of work, and you’ll feel like you did a lot of work, and that will stick with you. I used to say when I was younger, you might not like me very much, but you won’t forget me. I’ve kind of adopted that as my teaching philosophy, not that I want people to hate me, but, I want people to remember me. 

Has Plymouth been receptive to active learning, and do you think other professors here can benefit from incorporating this?

The reason I chose here, the thing that attracted me, was Tackling a Wicked Problem. Yes, there was a possibility to come back [to New Hampshire] and that was amazing. But it was the educational philosophy of the school which grabbed my eye. It looked like they were using the same language that I use to describe how I was teaching. I did it largely on my own, the pedagogy. I did take some certificate stuff, and there was pedagogical development that was made available to me over the course of my career to really get the active learning down. However, Plymouth, at least their verbal commitment, is to that style. So I think that there is a natural alignment between the way I think we should teach and what Plymouth wants to do. Whether or not it’s beneficial for all professors. I can’t say. I mean, it’s easy for me to create conundrums in a political science class. It’s easy for me to create drama and conflict because the topic lends itself to it. A lot of the classes that I end up teaching are well suited to this because I’ve chosen to teach them. So I’m naturally gravitating toward classes where my style suits me best, as opposed to ones where it’s not as good of a fit. Should people adopt active learning? I think the research suggests that we should. Whether it’s my particular style of active learning or others. 

Sounds cool. How can a student succeed in your classes and what kind of qualities are you looking for in them? 

Attendance. I spent 10 years teaching Gen Eds really, and in particular, when I was in Wyoming and Colorado, I was teaching nonmajors. So my classes really were designed around making the topic accessible to nonmajors. To a certain extent, the things that you would normally need to bring into the classroom like enthusiasm, and interest in the class, I actually assumed that wasn’t present. So all I needed was attendance, and I would try to do the rest. For some of the classes, an interest in topics that matter, if you’re interested in how we solve climate change from the perspective of a humanitarian organization, then I think that’s a natural fit. If you have a passing interest it helps in making you want to attend the class; but in terms of what it takes to really succeed, mere attendance. Much of my class is based on, do you show up to the simulations? Do you do the after-action reports? Do you actually do the thing, as opposed to whether I grade you on some arbitrary or subjective metric of quality? There is some of that in there, the success or failure is really about whether or not you participate, which in itself is controversial. There’s a lot of pushback among many professors that we’re moving more toward this participation trophy thing. To be honest, we know that success in college is correlated with attendance. It’s one of the clearest metrics for predicting the success of a student. So ultimately, I want people to be incentivized to show up. I try to do it by grade, but I also do it by making you want to show, and by making it fun, which goes back into that gamification and simulation stuff. That’s really the success or failure of my class. 

Next semester Charrette will be teaching three courses all of which fall under the political science domain. PO 1025 American Government is comparable to an intro to politics course which will be driven by the Active Learning method. He describes it as a situation in which “You create a constitution and that constitution generates the first, second, and third crises that you have to solve; it’s not easy, these crises are tough, they will test you.” This means heavy on simulations which will be enjoyable for students who want to mix up their grueling course load with something new and fun. I myself got a chance to sit in on a simulation and even participate as a wealthy merchant who posed a difficult choice to students in the class. From what I gathered it seemed like a fantastic environment and students appeared to be very satisfied. In addition, he will be teaching PO 3655 American Foreign Policy and the elective PODI 1056 Humanitarianism which will fill the Past and Present Direction. Students who enjoy politics, discussion, and trying new things will love learning from Jason Charrette and taking the classes he has to offer.