Simulations for students, or students for simulations?

One of the big topics of debate in the Simulations I track at APSA’s TLC in Long Beach  was about making simulations work for students. For many of the people around the room, this meant fitting the students into the most appropriate roles for their personality type, or adjusting the simulation to match the range of types.

I can certainly see the value of this approach. It makes it more likely that the simulation will run as anticipated, especially when it requires student buy-in – via their preparation and participation – to work: as one panellist said, it’s no good having a debate if the student doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Similarly, with the relatively small group sizes that most people were working with (in the 10-20 range), there was much scope to build in elements that reflected particular expertise: the presence of two communication majors in one simulation on presidential debates allowed for the development of an extra line of activity that would have been very difficult with pol sci students.

This was best encapsulated when I asked Michael Lyons  – whose congressional sim is in its 30th iteration – what would happen if both party leaders were weak/shy. Michael looked rather horrified at the thought and then said it would descend into chaos.

Maybe it’s just me, but I actually really like the idea of chaos.

One of the great pedagogic strengths of simulations is that there is as much – indeed more, if we follow Amanda and Nina’s line – to be learnt from failure as there is from success. If a lecture is poorly done, then students won’t get anything from it, but if a simulation doesn’t run in its anticipated path, then that is a powerful learning opportunity for everyone.

Let’s take an example to illustrate.

In our TLC workshop (resources here) Victor ran his World War II sim with the group. Despite having done this many times with students, the group can up with a different outcome to any other: after some discussion, we agreed that this was because the collective knowledge in the room on the limits of realist approaches to war and peace was far greater than would be the case with students, hence decisions were made with a forestalling of anticipated responses. Victor learnt something from that, as so did the group. Win-win.

Likewise, I have always been happy for my students to fail. I’ve had three full days of negotiations end up with nothing agreed, but still my students engaged with, and reflected upon, the reasons for that, even if it was deeply frustrating (perhaps because of that).

If we cleave to students’ proclivities or personalities (and I’m not even sure I’m too happy about the whole notion of learning styles that’s bound up with this), then we will have safer simulations, but also simulations that are less likely to have that learning through failure. In the case of Michael’s congressional sim, there would be chaos, but then students would start to recognise the reasons for that and try to address them (maybe by removing or bypassing the party leader), then in turn seeing that leadership is not the only barrier to finding majorities in Congress.

Yes, it’s messy and awkward and (occasionally) painful – not to mention the scope for people saying ‘your sim failed’ – but actually sims cannot fail in those terms. Failure is usually a valid outcome (certainly in most political topics): we only have to open a newspaper to see real-world actors failing all the time. As long as we can reflect with our students about why we fail, then we actually win, and that’s got to be a good thing.

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