It's too easy to point out Confucius' saying that ends with "I do and I understand". But it's also true! Learners must be highly involved in experiential teaching strategies to be successful 21st century citizens.

I once created what I thought was a great simulation designed to identify the causes of World War I. I created a simple model. I then set up groups of students to “play” the key countries in the conflict: Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, the United States.

Within each country-group I had the students take additional roles as Prime Minister/Czar/President etc.; as Foreign Secretary; War Minister etc. I took great care to

1. Clearly lay out the attitudes and beliefs of each country.

2. Identify what the various in-group roles’ responsibilities were.

I used “headlines” to move the energy of the simulation. One for example was that Germany “announces” that it was building 10 submarines. That announcement was supposed to prompt each country to make decisions about its own navy, its expenses, etc. and how it might begin to formulate alliances with countries of similar goals.

The process moved pretty well in most classes. One class was having trouble with reacting and collaborating with each other and I was working extra hard to bring them up to speed.

The denouement was supposed to be the headline: “Archduke Ferdinand assassinated by Serbian fanatic!” As you can guess this event was supposed to be the tipping point to provoke the countries to complete their alliances and to declare war.

In four of five classes that is exactly what happened. In the fifth, the one I alluded to above, it didn’t. I apologize for being “sexist” in advance but instead of the Austria-Hungary group declaring war, this group (all females) said, “We don’t declare war, the Archduke should never have gone to Sarajevo.”

Needless to say, as the simulation process evolved, that class avoided the conflagration and it fell to me in the debriefing to help the class see the difference between their collective decision and what actually happened.

I reflected on this afterwards and decided that the problems that class was having was about the role-playing AND more importantly the role-TAKING.

We all pretty much know what role-playing means. Role-TAKING is a different spin. In the latter, the individual(s) have to be willing to invest in, that is, take on the role they have been assigned. If they “go out of character” the simulation is usually cooked as in a flop.

Generalizing again I know but for example, if I asked an elementary set of students who wanted to play Goldilocks or any of the 3 Bears students would be standing on their seats begging for the chance. Try that in most 11th grade classes. On whole you’d have a much tougher time for students to TAKE the role.

A teacher-designer then must be mindful of who the students are who take on a role play and have taken great care to assure that the roles are thoroughly understood.

I am not advocating that students must accurately make the decisions that a given role might presume. I am advocating that they know what the values, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and mindsets are that the role expects.

The anecdote offered also dramatizes the next most important part of a simulation design. Mindful of the model, the SIMPLIFIED version of reality, the designer must very carefully identify and more carefully define the roles of each individual in a simulation.

Much like a novel where an author may sometimes merge two or persons into one character, it is perfectly acceptable and actually wise to do this. However in opposition to a novel where the author obviously can have the amalgamated character do whatever she wants the character to do, in a simulation the assigned student or students has some latitude  to work within.

What you want is to make sure that the role-player has TAKEN the role.

Another caution in simulation design related to creating roles is being water-tight sure that every student has something meaningful to do in the activity. Few things will turn off student-participants at any age level if one person gets to the “king” and the rest of the students get to “watch” the king have all the action and all the fun.


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