Simulations as a Learning Modality for K-12 Stakeholders

July 10, 2020

Having been involved with simulations for over 30 years and working with leaders in different industries around the world, I have experienced firsthand just how powerful sim-based learning can be. Advancements in neuroscience and the recognition of how biases/heuristics influence decision-making, substantiate that simulations are the best modality to provide deep and fundamental learning.  And because simulations can effectively be delivered in so many ways, they are considered one of the most versatile learning tools available.  While simulations are used to train other high stakes jobs such as pilots, healthcare providers, firefighters, and soldiers, simulations are not a widely recognized training modality in the K-12 space…yet.

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The objective of a sim is to provide an experience which encourages participants to exercise critical thinking and use judgment in making decisions and enabling them to experience the consequences of those choices while providing an opportunity for feedback and reflection. Because the goal is to have an experience rather than to provide the right answer, participants are encouraged to disagree with what is presented within the sim.  This forces them to think and defend their “why” and dissecting the “why” in solving problems of practice is where critical thinking skills develop.

I believe that sims are best done with others. The combination of having a shared experience with someone who brings different ideas and experiences significantly increases the likelihood of learning. Peer-to peer-learning has the dual benefit of not just developing participants’ knowledge-base but also organically building teams. This can be done without specific simulation expertise and therefore fits nicely within the available human resources of a district, school, or university.  In fact, one of our school district clients has developed a unique way to derive value out of their use of our SchoolSims simulation library:

“One of the ways that we use SchoolSims in our Leadership Academy. In Rockdale,  we have our aspiring principal cohort select one of the simulations and then “take the lead” in working with our induction-level assistant principals and aspiring assistant principal cohort in helping them “think through” the decision-making process that is involved within the content of the scenario.  We have received very positive feedback from both the individuals who are “leading the discussion” and from those that are participating.  According to the feedback we have received, this has assisted in preparing each group to be better equipped for the “content” of the scenario.  We believe this is a powerful activity for our aspiring assistant principal cohort because it models the type of leadership support that we expect our principals to provide to their administrative team.”

The versatility of simulations as a modality allows SchoolSims clients to determine how best to utilize them, with which audiences, blended with what content, and at what frequency. Some examples of what that flexibility may look like within a school setting are:

  1. Leadership Pipeline Activities (i.e. “building the bench”) – to provide for a wide range of responsibilities and challenges, many of our simulations focus on the role of the principal.  However, experiencing the complications of principalship is beneficial to teachers as well as current and aspiring leaders.
    1. Teacher Leaders/Aspiring Leaders – These participants have not yet been “in the chair” but they have worked with/for a principal and are working towards a leadership position. This is an opportunity for them to experience issues from this perspective and to decide what they think would be appropriate. By having the opportunity to experience the consequences of their choices safely within the sim, they gain insights into the different challenges from a leadership perspective without the fallout of making mistakes in real life.
    2. Assistant Principals – In addition to the benefits above, SchoolSims help make APs better leaders and better partners with the principals they support by aligning how they make decisions and identifying effective means of communication.
    3. Early Career Principals – SchoolSims provide new principals an opportunity to further develop their critical thinking skills and to prepare for issues that are bound to arise.
    4. Experienced Principals – SchoolSims provide for rich discussions amongst experienced leaders as they delve more deeply into issues and surface potential systemic opportunities in their buildings while they collect insights from their cohort. Provoking meaningful conversation involving topical issues provides participants a chance to ask for advice and share lessons-learned while maintaining confidentiality.
  2. Coaching/Mentoring – SchoolSims can be leveraged by coaches and mentors with their proteges as a tool to help with decision-making around an issue as well as an opportunity to actually experience the blowback and follow-up that is often difficult to verbalize credibly. Experiencing the simulation multiple times, each time taking a different path, provides participants the opportunity to deal with the what may come from the various stakeholders and see how one decision affects another since the outcomes are not always what is expected.
  3. Principals within their own buildings – There is a benefit to school leaders when they lead a simulation with their own team in their own building. As the group engages in shared simulated decision-making, the discussions encourage teamwork and gain alignment in how decision will be made in real-life.  Further, there is an opportunity to build empathy as the principal is afforded a chance to hear how their team thinks and arrives at decisions. Conversely, the team gains insight into the complexities of leadership so that they can appreciate that though they may not like a decision, they can understand why it was made.
  4. Professional Learning Communities – SchoolSims are a great opportunity for PLCs to experience and work collaboratively on a specific topical simulation as they look to identify opportunities to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students. This type of shared experience allows for more engaging discussion and ongoing communication as the participants will have common reference points, characters, and context.

People are apt to misdiagnose problems during moments of crisis if they do not practice for them.  SchoolSims provides a powerful tool for districts and schools to actively prepare teachers and aspiring and current leaders to face new and complex situations.  While the challenges of today are varied and many, losing focus on the importance of professional development and the building of a leadership pipeline will be devastating. To perform in a crisis, you must feel ready for one.  SchoolSims, whether deployed in-person or virtually, teaches participants to breath, recognize the situation, and execute a plan with confidence.