Learning Simulations Add to Classroom Lessons
by Lanny Sorenson
Learning Simulations are all around us. The military uses them. Video games are simulations, with one of the most popular ones called by a shortened version of the word "simulation" itself. Teachers at all levels use them. You may remember one or two from your own school days. Why are they so popular (especially with students)? Because they work!
The idea behind simulations is to submerge the students deep into the context of the concept being taught, explored, uncovered. According to *Edgar Dale, the very best learning experience is doing the real thing. A well thought out and executed simulation is definitely the next best thing.
Simulations and uses of simulations are as varied as there are subjects. However, just like any teaching strategies, they have their limits. Not every concept is necessarily going to merit a simulation. As an abstract rule, situations where any role-playing can be done, by the teacher, class, or combination of teacher and class, are ideal. Work stations where students work autonomously on tasks can also be defined as simulations if the content reflects real life.
Other teaching strategies or structures such as cooperative learning and multiple intelligences may work well in combination with the simulation. Even more ideal is integration. If the simulation is carried over from subject to subject, the affect can be exponentially greater. The best integrations tend to have a common concept, e.g., conflict is a concept that can be discussed simultaneously in science; social science, history, geography; teen living, English, drama, and so on.
Some Helpful Hints:
- Start with the end in mind.
- As in all teaching strategies, the better planned, the greater the chance of success.
- Have a specific educational objective.
- Sometimes less IS best. Trying to take on more than one main concept can kill a good simulation.
- A wonderful side effect common to simulations is that other ideas may grow out of it in parallel, be flexible to allow such learning gems.
- Use what works year after year, but let it grow, evolve, never stagnate.
- Be ready to make adjustments on the fly, and for the next time.
- Share! --A teacher is only as good as the one he/she steals from, copyrights excluded.
- Other teachers may be conducting great simulations in your building that you're not even aware of. Beat the isolationism, one project at a time.
- Other good teachers will want to hear what works for you. They will adapt what you do to fit their own needs.
- Boldly go…
- The very best simulation you ever do may come entirely from your own ideas. Try inventing.
- Get out of that proverbial comfort zone and allow for inevitable mistakes. Experts tell us there is a curve in change, it generally goes up, then drops below where it started, then slowly climbs to a new height. No risk, no new height.
*Dale, E. Audiovisual methods in teaching. New York: Holt. Rinehard and Winston, Inc, 1969.
Some samples of classroom simulations:
Trip to a Fictitious Island
The are many variations of this simulation out there. For a fairly complicated example, check PBS:
Simplified examples, especially for Elementary, can also be found. The idea is for a cooperative group to prepare for going to a fictitious--or real as above--place. The team has to work together. (Cooperative learning suggests each team member has a specific role.) Students can be asked to show competency in whatever is chosen. They can have a limited amount of money to spend on supplies, they must show knowledge of maps and directions, and so on. Politics can be pulled in when the new land is yet unsettled. Or, they may be asked to document their findings to share with their financial sponsors when they return. The options are virtually unlimited.
An "Island" simulation can be found at:
Short Story Skit
Integrations: language arts, the short story, myth, epic poem, etc.; any discipline that relates to the story.
For post-reading, students are assigned in groups to write a skit based on the characters from the story. They may create a different ending, a scene that takes place ten or twenty years later, a parallel story, a role reversal of the protagonist and antagonist, etc. Through playing the characters, students connect with them and/or the dramatic elements involved.
A process drama can take some preparation, but once it's going, opportunities for learning abound. Process dramas are great for filling an integrated-concept unit and any teacher can use them, though it may help to have a basic knowledge of dramatic elements. Other than the ability to develop semi-complex cooperative skills, no talent has to be required of the students. There is also a lot of room for creativity both on the teacher's part and students'. In a nutshell, students create or recreate a situation, either fictitious or based on actual events. They move through a process, establishing elements and creating products and/or performances along the way. In most cases, a simple rubric is all that is required to map the course.
A source for process dramas is in print, Drama Structures, by Cecily O'Neil, on Trans-Atlantic Publications:
US History, math, language arts.
As a young student, you may have been a part of a westward pioneer movement simulation in your US History class. The idea has grown. Now, there is an online version your class can participate in. It may be worth a look, even to see what other classes are up to:
Developed by Lanny Sorenson
Integrations: language arts, The Diary of Anne Frank; social studies, fascism; history, WWII; the minority-American experience, and so on. For a free copy of this lesson plan, mailto:email@example.com
A GREAT for profit source is:
Be sure to at least check their free page at:
A PLETHORA of web sites, lesson plans (mostly free), books, etc., on simulations of virtually any possible topic can be found through EducationPlanet.com:
More on the uses of Process Dramas:
More Process Drama Lesson Plans:
Social Issues through Process Drama by Joann O'Mara:
Holocaust simulation kit (for profit):
For more information on simulations, active learning strategies, or Lanny Sorenson,
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