I am really excited about my next several blog posts. Why? Because I want to help you bring excitement and true engagement to your social studies classroom. Between my husband and myself, we have almost 40 years of teaching experience, with most of those years teaching social studies (and I still can’t believe that number is close to 40!). We know how important it is to implement a variety of teaching strategies, and one of the most used strategies is the ever popular PowerPoint. Not to knock the PowerPoint lecture and notes thing because some kids really do learn better that way, and students do need to have experience with it because they are going to see it for the rest of their school career. I have had several students who actually prefer this method, and they actually learn more from this delivery method than others. With that said, I have had WAY more students who benefited from other, more hands-on strategies. I hope you will check back with me over the next few months to learn “7 Ways to Step Away From the Lecture Podium & Revitalize Your Social Studies Classroom.”
I know that it is really hard to get some of our students excited about social studies because a lot of them see it as irrelevant past events. They think history is dead. They have no idea how those past events have actually impacted their lives today, that those past events can be a good predictor of future events, and that they can use those past events to make better informed future decisions for themselves and their communities. Part of our job as educators is to help them find relevance in past events and help them connect those events to their own lives. Let’s face it: our students can be very egocentric. If they don’t think something applies to them, they probably won’t have a lot of interest in it.
It’s a challenge to find teaching strategies beyond that PowerPoint lecture and notes because there is SO much information students need to learn, and that lecture is one of the easiest and quickest ways to deliver it. However, do most of your students remember the information days, weeks, months, or even years later? Social studies standards vary state to state, and I have found that a lot of states will visit a topic in an early grade, then a few years later circle back to that same topic and go more in depth. For example, in Georgia the Civil War is taught in the 5th grade and then again in high school during US History. How many of those students do you think remember what they learned in 5th grade to be able to dive deeper years later in high school? I am willing to bet many of those high school teachers have to review a lot before they can even get into their curriculum.
I am not saying that if you use other methods to deliver your instruction students will remember EVERYTHING, because we know that just isn’t realistic. BUT maybe they WILL remember the important pieces that will give them that solid foundation they need for later years.
With all of this in mind, I decided to write a series of blog posts called “7 Ways to Step Away From the Lecture Podium & Revitalize Your Social Studies Classroom” to help you add some new instructional strategies to your toolbox or to simply give you the push you need to try something new!
This first strategy I want to share is SIMULATIONS (and simulations might be my favorite one!)
What is a simulation?
A simulation is an open-ended scenario presented to students for them assume the roles of other people, make decisions, resolve conflicts, and make predictions to gain a deeper understanding of concepts or events. Simulations make it possible for students to repeat the scenario and make different decisions to see how the outcome is affected. Simulations can have multiple outcomes, depending on the choices the student makes, so students can see how events are connected. A simulation is a form of experiential learning that is student-centered. Some people call simulations “role-playing” because students are pretending to be someone else and assume various viewpoints. Students do not have a specific script to follow or series of actions they must complete. A simulation allows some free-choice for students. Some simulations can be completed in under an hour, while others might take days or weeks.
Why use simulations?
- Deeper understanding– Simulations allow students to gain a richer understanding and evaluate multiple perspectives of a specific scenario. They can help students better understand historical concepts that they can’t experience. It’s hard for students to really connect with events and people from the past. Unlike science, you can’t perform experiments in social studies, but simulations can offer that hands-on experience students need. You won’t have to motivate students because they will want to learn. Most students retain more information learned and applied in a simulation than if they sat through a PowerPoint lecture and took notes. Students aren’t observers and listeners during a simulation. They are living through an experience that they can modify. They begin to understand the relationships between events, and they begin to apply learned knowledge in new contexts.
- Fewer discipline issues– When students are self motivated, we don’t have to monitor their behavior. We don’t have to redirect their attention. We don’t have to ensure they are on task and doing what they should be doing. They are invested and interested. This leads to fewer discipline issues that you have to handle. Who doesn’t want that?!
- Increased engagement– When students participate in hands-on activities, they become more engaged and involved in learning the content as well as using the knowledge to solve problems, explore alternative actions, and come up with their own solutions. Simulations help students move beyond the surface-level learning.
- Critical thinking– Primary documents can be integrated into simulations to help students make decisions in response to the scenario they face. Students have to be critical thinkers and analyze events to make informed decisions. Simulations help develop the skills of communication, working cooperatively, problem-solving, and critical analysis. Students learn how to use multiple sources of information, visualize and model an event or concept, and evaluate how their actions might affect an outcome. Students better understand their own thought process as they reflect and think about their choices and why they made those decisions.
- Improved writing– Students are more articulate and thoughtful in their writing after completing simulations, too. Because they have been able to “feel” the emotions, they are better able to convey their thoughts. How many times have you asked students to write from someone else’s point of view, and what they turn in is less than stellar? It’s because you are asking them to take on another person’s perspective, but you have provided the opportunity for them to really connect with that person. Simulations help bridge this gap.
- Simulations are effective– Pilots have to log simulator hours, the Pentagon simulates possible conflicts, medical students perform procedures on cadavers, and lawyers perform mock trials. These are just a few examples of how simulations are used in extremely important situations.
- Simulations are FUN! They allow students to relive history in a sense, and often they can feel like a game. What student doesn’t love playing games? The trick is to make sure students don’t forget it’s more than a game, and I will explain how in the “Roadblocks” section below. I know students love simulations, not because THEY tell me, but because their parents tell me that it left such an impression on their child, they have talked nonstop about it. And wasn’t because it was “fun,” it was because they had a better grasp of the content and learned it in a fun AND meaningful way.
How do I implement a simulation?
- Background– Depending on the purpose of the simulation, students might need to have specific background knowledge before they go through the simulation. For example, you can’t expect students to understand how a World War 1 soldier would feel and react in the trenches if they haven’t learned about trench warfare and the new weapons and technologies of WW1. Make sure you equip students with the knowledge they need to be successful.
- Assume identities– Students will need to be either assigned a role, or they can choose a role. Again, ensure students understand the role they are playing.
- Actual simulation– Once students have a solid background and understand the role they are assuming, you can go over the purpose and directions of the simulation. I always do a few sample turns with them, so they can see how it works. Sometimes I have my students go through it whole group, sometimes in a small group, sometimes with a partner, and sometimes independently. It really depends on what the simulation is and the purpose. One thing is consistent, though: Don’t stop students, interrupt them to give advice, or try to steer them in another direction than what they chose for themselves! Obviously if they need help on how to play it, by all means help them. But even if they ask for advice on a decision, use all your restraint to NOT help them. It’s important for them to think critically and make their own choices. Once students have completed the simulation, you might have them choose another role and go through it again, or they could keep the same role and just make different choices.
- Debriefing– I know it’s tempting to quickly wrap up after your students finish a simulation, but if it’s their first time completing this specific simulation, please spend some time following up with students. This debrief period is an opportunity for your students to analyze their actions, the events that occurred, and discuss what happened and why. This is when most of your students deeper understanding will actually happen because they are able to communicate and interact with other students and you about their experiences. This is also a very important moment to let students talk about their emotions and how they felt. If the simulation is one that could stir up emotions, you need to help students understand why they are feeling that way and how to adjust to the simulation being over (I will address the appropriateness of simulations in the “Considerations” section below). You will need to make sure students are able to understand the relationship of the simulation to the historical concept, and how emotion helps tie them together. Here are some follow-up questions you can ask them:
- What did you learn from this experience?
- How did you feel during each of the roles?
- How was this simulation similar to the real events that occurred? How was it different?
- What do you think you should have done differently? Why?
- How were the events connected to ___________?
- How can you improve it next time?
- Did the simulation help them better understand the concept?
What are some possible roadblocks?
- Time consuming– Simulations take time to implement, but they take even more time to create. They aren’t something you can throw together in a short amount of time. It takes time to ensure they are historically accurate, appropriate for your students, and will provide the learning opportunity you want for your students. You can’t rush through the simulation because you want to make sure students don’t get lost in the fun of playing the game. You have to make time for the prep work and the debriefing. Otherwise they won’t be nearly as effective. If you want to try out a simulation, but you don’t have time to make one, I am offering a free simulation you can try out!
- Letting go of control– Sometimes it can be hard to let go of your classroom. I get it. But in order for a simulation to work as it is intended, you have to be able to give the reins of the learning environment to your students. You have to be OK with the simulation not necessarily going in the direction you wanted it to go in. This is another reason debriefing is important. You have to let students have experiential learning where they are allowed to move in unexpected directions. This is how they gain that deeper understanding: through trial and error.
- Completely different from what you do– Anytime you try something for the first time, there will be hiccups along the way. Simulations can be complicated. There can be many moving pieces. Even if you have done simulations with your students before, anytime you do a simulation for the FIRST time, read through it thoroughly. Read it so many times you have it memorized. You need to be as familiar with the instructions as possible, so you can explain it thoroughly to your students. I have found it very helpful to play the simulation first, either with my husband, one of my children, or a colleague, so I better understand it. This helps me become confident in teaching my students about the simulation.
- Assess students– Anytime we have students complete an activity that takes time, we want to make sure they have learned something. Simulations can be tricky to assess because students might make a wrong choice, but that’s OK! They can use the knowledge they gained from that experience to correct their mistake. I usually assess my students based on the debriefing period, using informal observations and our discussion. Another way I love to assess my students is by assigning them a related RAFT task. This helps improve their writing AND allows them to apply their learning. I can easily see if they reached our learning targets by assessing their RAFT writings.
- It’s all play– Students will sometimes slip into the mindset of it’s just a game. There isn’t an educational target. However, this is when you step in to remind students of the purpose of the simulation. It’s great that simulations can be so engaging that students get totally sucked in, but it’s our job as the teacher to pull them back down and make sure they are actively thinking about the concepts WHILE they go through the simulation.
- Winners and losers– Sometimes there might be a winner(s) and loser(s). You need to remind students that the purpose is not to win, but to gain a deeper understanding about the content. You will have competitive students. I sure did! But I never offered prizes or incentives, and I always let my students go through it again, whether as a guided activity or as an early finishers choice.
- Don’t forget your students when planning or selecting a simulation. I have seen a lot of simulations I would not have my students complete because I didn’t believe they were appropriate. I am not saying the simulation wasn’t good, but I knew it would achieve what I wanted for my students. This is where you have to use professional judgement and weigh the pros and cons. You have to know your students well enough to determine if a simulation would be too easy or difficult for students level-wise, but also emotionally.
- You don’t want to minimize other’s perspectives or feelings in a simulation. For example, I chose not to use a certain simulation during our Holocaust unit. Asking students to find hiding places, or pretend to be persecuted was not something I felt appropriate. I did not want to minimize how those targeted during the Holocaust felt, or how survivors of the Holocaust feel today. Those events are too immense to trivialize in a simulation. Asking students to emotionally feel how they felt is impossible. I attended a training sponsored by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and I realized that if I wanted students to emotionally understand those events, there were other ways than by asking them to feel like someone who went through it. I invited Holocaust survivors to speak with my students, and that was WAY more powerful than having them go through a simulation.
- Remember to be sensitive to simulations as they relate to ethnicity and race. We don’t want to oversimplify history and oppression, nor do we want to trivialize others’ experiences. Allow students to opt-out of potential emotional simulations. Don’t group students in a simulation based on characteristics that represent real-life oppression. This can be very hurtful. Know your students and what they can handle, so simulations don’t become personal.
Tips to make it run smoothly
- Explicitly go over the learning target, purpose, rules, and expectations of the simulation. Students have to thoroughly understand what is expected.
- Have all materials in an easy to access location. Using envelopes, tubs, and baggies help keep things organized.
- Hold students accountable for their participation. Let them know how they will be assessed: informal observation, discussion participation, RAFT writing task, etc.
- Anticipate how it could go wrong and discuss this with your students. If you have never done a simulation before, you won’t be able to do this.
- Even though you are hands-off during the simulation, you still need to be monitoring your students closely to ensure they understand the purpose and benefits of the stimulation.
- If students are working in small groups, try to have one student in each group that has a clear understanding of the simulation. This student can help his group members if they get stuck and you are unavailable to help.
If you have experience with implementing simulations in your classroom, I would love to hear about it in the comments below!