Want to improve your leadership development? Use simulations!

February 11, 2020

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By Dr. David De Jong, ED.D.

We expect administrators to learn on the job, but responding to conflicts in a virtual world helps them learn without real-world consequences. American schools are facing a crisis in the lack of professional learning for school leaders.

These leaders are required to be licensed, which usually entails a two-year program at a university or college. However, once they actually begin their careers, most of them will tell you that any further professional learning comes on the job. This vacuum of professional learning among principals and superintendents means many have to stub their toes by learning from mistakes, leading sometimes to grave consequences and almost certainly to less-than-optimal outcomes.

In my research, I’ve worked extensively with simulations that help our school leaders continue their professional growth well past their licensing requirements. Effective simulations present relevant scenarios that offer leaders the opportunity to listen and learn from their peers and to gain experience without risk.

Key findings of my research in using computer simulations for educational leadership professional development (PD) include:

  • Discussions generated by the simulations are the most valuable aspect of the experience, according to participant responses
  • Simulations spurred critical thinking, with participants indicating that the experience caused them to think more deeply about their decisions and their consequences
  • Participants said the simulations helped them to see the perspectives of others
  • Participants said they felt more confident about their abilities to lead during complex situations following their participation in simulations

Inspiring leaders to examine their decisions
The goal of simulations is to help leaders learn more about themselves. We can’t assume that leaders are going to reflect into why they make the decisions they do. They’re busy, and new challenges are always arising, often preventing them to question why they did something.

When I administer a simulation, every school leader locks in their response before they talk to the person next to them or to the full group. Without that, many will simply agree with others in the room. And, of course, the goal isn’t coming to a “right” answer, but rather to help each person see how decisions play out and to facilitate a conversation about challenging situations with sometimes unforeseen consequences.

When leaders lock in an answer before sharing it with their colleagues, it’s staggering to see how many disagreements arise, even among like-minded participants. Those disagreements also lead to an examination of why they didn’t choose the other options, which offers just as much learning as an examination of the path they did choose.

Connecting simulations to the real world
One simulation that I’ve administered multiple times, called “The Bully Teacher,” centers on a teacher who comes to the leader—our simulation participants—and shares concerns that another teacher is being mean to them and mean to students. Participants choose how to reply as the principal.

Now, I rarely get unanimous responses, but when I administer this simulation to Christian school leaders, they are always nearly unanimous in their response, which is to tell the teacher to go talk to their bully—because Matthew 18 says that when you have a problem with your brother or sister, you should go talk directly to him or her. If they give that response in the simulation, though, the teacher tells them, “I don’t feel comfortable doing that,” and then she resigns.

Some of the leaders participating in the simulation will tell me the simulation is wrong, but we inevitably have a deep and rich conversation, and everyone walks away with a slightly different perspective.

Making leadership PD engaging
Even when administered on an individual basis without discussion among their peers, simulations engage school leaders. When my online students take sims individually, almost every time, they come back to me and say, “I was so curious about different paths to this simulation that I chose to redo it seven or eight different times, to take different paths and see how they played out.”

It speaks volumes to me that so many school leaders—when they had the time and the freedom to do so—would choose to go back through the simulation multiple times when the only requirement for the class is to go through it once. I’m not surprised, though. There is an abundance of PD for teachers, but there are few options for school leaders. So few, in fact, that our school leaders often feel isolated.

I frequently hear school leaders say, “You know, I feel like I’m on an island. Nobody really understands what I’m going through.” That’s not true, though: Those of us researching school leadership and training school leaders understand. Their fellow school leaders understand. And simulations can help them connect to each other, understand how their peers face down the same professional challenges, and come away excited and enriched.