Simulations are a useful teaching strategy for illustrating a complex and changing situation. Simulations are (necessarily) less complex than the situations they represent.
In a simulation, the learner acts, the simulation reacts, the learner learns from this feedback. Examples of simulations: car and flight simulators, SIM City, Monopoly, mock elections, model UN. Note that in each of these cases, the “game” involves rules, and the students must make decisions. Each decision a student makes affects the outcome of the game.
For the students to learn what you intend for them to learn from the simulation, you must hold a discussion during and/or after the game. This is integral to the students' learning. There is so much we could have learned from playing Monopoly that went right through our heads because there was no discussion about what it all meant. (Not that there isn't time to play without focusing on learning. But that kind of play takes place outside of classrooms, not in them.)
Phase One: Orientation
- Explain to your students what simulations are about and for. (If you mention some common games they play which are simulations, they might start thinking about what real life complex situations the games model, and might learn something about them.)
- Describe the particular simulation.
- Ensure the students understand the purpose of the simulation.
- Outline the rules for the students. I put the rules on an overhead, and leave the overhead on during the simulation. You could also write the rules on bristle board, and hang this in a conspicuous place during the activity.
- Assign roles to the students.
Phase Two: The Simulation
- The students participate in the game, playing their roles as assigned. You, are the coach and referee. You should stay uninvolved, except when you notice that you can facilitate the educational opportunities the simulation presents.
- While your students are playing, you could make anecdotal records, or fill in checklists.
Phase Three: Debrief
For every teaching strategy involving a debrief, I will suggest a different method. There are a number of ways in which debriefs can be done. Please mix and match the different forms of debriefs you use.
- Put the students into small groups.
- Choose three or four learning objectives for the simulation. Write up these learning objectives as questions for discussion. One question should be about how the students think the simulation is like the real thing and how it is not like the real thing. Give each small group of students one question to discuss.
- Tell the students how much time they have to discuss the questions.
- Five minutes before the time is up, visit each group with a card which has written on it: Five minutes until presentation. “Choose a speaker and write a summary of your discussion for the speaker to present to the class.”
- An alternative to the above method would be to put groups who have discussed different question together to discuss their different questions and answers. This way, each group has an opportunity to discuss at least two of the questions.
- If you use this second method, you could have students write answers to the questions in a learning log instead of having them present to the class.
Examples of Simulations:
To illustrate the complexity of scientists at work constructing knowledge, have small groups of students assemble different parts of a jig saw puzzle.
To illustrate the variety of factors involved in animal survival, there are many simulations available in the Project Wild Activity Book. For example, one involves bears preparing for winter. The teacher drops a number of food cards around the area where the students will be playing. Some bears are given handicaps. For example, one bear is blind, so is blindfolded. One is lame, so must never run - only walk. Some bears have young, so must collect twice as much food as others. At the end of the game, tally up how many food points each bear has collected. The blind, and lame bears are unlikely to have as many points as the healthy ones, but they might. Etc.