Friday, October 24, 2014

Teaching Using Simulations

One of my best experiences in college (and the reason I majored in history) was participating in a simulation of the French Revolution in Western Civ. during my freshman year.

I'd be the first to admit that I was a lazy student in high school; it did not take me much effort to graduate with a 3.81 GPA and my mentality was "why work harder when I'm doing well?"  I even voluntarily took an A- instead of an 'A' in a Senior class by opting not to do an semi-optional report (semi-optional meaning that we could choose not to do it, but in choosing not to, would not be able to achieve higher than a 95%, which was an A-).  I liked the class, and I liked the teacher, I just wasn't altogether motivated.

Then came college, and the simulation.  Suddenly, I was in charge of the Parisian mob and I needed not only to be able to quote Rousseau, but to use Rousseau like a cudgel against the corrupt clergy and nobility.  I stayed up all night editing my faction's newspaper several times, pulling out all the stops that I'd learned on the high school newspaper staff to make our publication the best.  It wasn't just me--our entire class was so engrossed in this simulation that we even agreed to meet at 7:30 a.m., half an hour earlier than our usual meeting time, when we realized we were going to run out of time.  Our class' experience was actually featured in a book by Dr. Mark Carnes, the Barnard professor who created the simulation.  Carnes, who has designed several other simulations as part of his "Reacting to the Past" series, posits that simulations hold the key to transforming lackluster college classes.

Personally, I'm turning my attention to my high schoolers.  There must be students like me.  There must be students who are disengaged, who see little purpose in trying beyond passing.  I want to give them what my professor gave me: something to spark their interest, to make them want to understand for understanding's own sake.

Last year, in teaching about the formation of the U.S. Government, I designed a loose one-day simulation which called for the students to establish a system of governance for the fictional country of Humanistan, which had many parallels with the United States, circa 1790.  The activity was fun and the kids did get into it as I'd hoped.  However, there was not quite enough structure to make the learning outcomes worthwhile, and I was half-amused, half-dismayed to see several enterprising students use the lack of structure to form a coalition through which the North ganged up on the South and coerced them into agreement.

This year, I sat down with my Humanistan simulation and performed painstaking reconstructive surgery.  My first decision was to toss out my creative and intricately designed Humanistan map, which I'd spent hours designing the previous year.  It was fun, it was cute, but it was not a perfect analogy for the United States, and the energy spent pointing out the parallels to the real U.S. could have gone toward other things.  The second choice was to give each state specific objectives, each with a point value assigned.

Here is the role sheet I gave to the delegates from Massachusetts, for example:
Population: 378,787 (0 slaves)
Description: You are part of the region commonly referred to as “New England.”  The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630, later combining with the colony of Plymouth to form modern-day Massachusetts.  Your climate has short, mild summers, and long cold winters, with the positive result of less disease than many other, warmer colonies.  Your terrain primarily consists of jagged coastline and forested hills: less than ideal for farming, but very conducive to ship-building and trade.  Massachusetts is the proud home to Harvard University, founded in 1636.  You also hold the distinction for having led the Revolution, and currently you are on another cutting edge: yours is the first state to completely abolish slavery and you are the leaders of a small but growing abolition movement in the nation.  Your heart longs to see slavery eradicated from the face of the earth.  You are in favor of expanding the powers and role of the federal (central) government as you believe only a strong central government will bring about the unity needed for the growth and success of America.  As such, you believe that states ought to be represented according to population.  You also support a two-house legislature and the establishment of a national bank to help pay off debts.  Even if the other states are not ready to immediately abolish slavery, you are desperate to see some decision made on the matter. 

You will earn points if the following resolutions are passed:
+Representation by population (+4 points)
+Slavery abolished immediately (+3 points)
+National Bank Established (+2 points)
+Two-house legislature (+1 point)

You will lose points if…
-Slaves count toward the number of delegates (-1 point)
-Only states may pass protective tariffs (-2 points)
-One-house legislature (-3 points)
-The issue of slavery is not voted on at all (-4 points)
The students' task was to respond to the Virginia Plan, which proposed a bicameral legislature with the representation of both houses determined by population.  Students were assigned two to a state, asked to think through their state's priorities, and to talk to each other, to make deals and eventually create a plan that would be widely approved.  My goals were three-fold: firstly, to prepare the students for an upcoming DBQ in which they would address the shift in American perspective on government in the years leading up to the Constitutional Convention; secondly, to have the students consider firsthand what a government owes its citizenry; thirdly, to have the students engage in the sort of compromise that will characterize much of the content of the next unit in class to recognize its benefits and pitfalls.

The experience was a success: it took the students a little bit of time to figure out that they would not be able to get a perfect 10 points, that they would have to give up some things they wanted and agree to some things that they did not want, and that the only way to move forward was to get up from their desk and talk to the other states.  Every student was engaged.  The most fun was seeing students who are typically shy become major facilitators.  How did that happen?  I called for it in the role.  I made one of New Jersey's objectives be to write up a new plan (which actually happened in history), and as such they had to 1) Talk to every state in the assembly (a 4 point penalty if they failed to do so) and 2) Listen to what the other states wanted and write up a plan which would present a compromise (worth 2 points).  The girls who I'd assigned to represent New Jersey went a little pale when I explained this part to them, but they rose to the occasion masterfully.  It's worth noting that I told the students at the outset that they wouldn't be graded on the simulation and they still dove in anyway!

The students approved a plan which called for a two-house legislature with representation by population in one house and representation by state in the other; slaves would be counted toward the total population in determining delegates; and a national army would be raised.  Separately, Massachusetts unsuccessfully lobbied for the abolition of slavery.  While there are things I will change or fine-tune for next year, I was pleased with how this turned out and felt validated in my high opinion of classroom simulations.

In past years, I always struggled to introduce information about legislature and checks and balances to students who may be totally unfamiliar with American government and who may never live in America.  This year, the students understand--they lived it, if only for 100 minutes.  I don't care if they remember the specific terms and indeed I won't test them; what I'll look for on their DBQ is an understanding of why such a government took shape, and in coming units, we will look at the results (both positive and negative) of the government created at that Constitutional Convention.  This, in my mind, is a vital part of our ongoing discussion about justice, for indeed, government can be (and has been) the source of both justice and injustice, not only in America but all around the world.  The discussion on compromise will come back in full force later when we talk about the Civil War.  Maybe that will be a good time for the next simulation...

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