Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Year of Games and Simulations

This has been the year of classroom simulations.  I've used simulations before, but they were either too drawn out, or half-baked.  This year, I put a lot of energy into using simulations to promote student understanding of both context and concepts.  We did four simulations together in Humanities class this year:

October: Constitutional Convention Simulation
January: Compromise of 1850 Simulation
March: Treaty of Versailles Simulation
April: Atomic Bomb Decision Simulation

In three of these cases, the main purpose of the simulation was to prepare students to do a DBQ on the historical event they had simulated.  The class average increased by nearly 10 points between the first DBQ (on the constitutional convention) and the second.  Essentially, the simulations are a study session wherein the kids familiarize themselves with the events and concepts in play by temporarily immersing themselves in the thick of whatever issue and time period happens to be the focus.

Today, we started our final simulation on the decision to drop the atomic bomb. In previous years, I had dedicated more than a week to this simulation, and it had been a multi-stage formal debate.  Last year, I realized that it was too much, for no clear purpose; moreover, the kids who were not on one side of the debate or the other played too passive a role for that stretch of time.  This year, I truncated it to a two-day in-class activity, more in line with previous class simulations.  Rather than debating formally in front of class, the teams of six would have one period to put their arguments together using a selection of primary sources I compiled for them before being set loose to convince their classmates.  The "indeterminates"--the ten students not on a team--were responsible for coming up with a list of pressing questions they needed the teams to answer, as well as any other information they felt they would need to know in order to make an informed decision.  Tomorrow, we will vote using ballots--whichever side gets more votes wins the simulation (including all who voted for the winning side).

To raise the stakes, I informed the class that all who won would receive 5 extra points on their DBQ, and that if I found them using their computers for off-task purposes, they would forfeit their shot at the 5 extra points.

And just like that the students were off to various corners of the school to research, scheme and plot their strategy to convince their undecided classmates.  Meanwhile, I lectured those ten indeterminate students on presentism, challenging them to step out of their personal views on the bomb.  We had a good 15 minute discussion about all of the important aspects of this decision and together generated a list of key questions and considerations on the board.

When the teams returned after roughly one hour of research and planning, they wasted no time in passionately presenting their case in informal conversations with the indeterminates.  I heard students citing Einstein, Szilard, the Geneva Conventions, casualty statistics from the Battle of Okinawa and the Tokyo fire-bombings, and much more as they sought to win over their classmates.  I'd given each team a warning about not bribing, threatening or trading on social dynamics beyond the simulation and they made good.  It was 50 minutes of intense and heated historically-rooted conversations.

The indeterminates all cited coming away from the conversations feeling less sure of their decision, which I told them was the natural effect of abandoning presentism and allowing their assumptions to be challenged.  Tomorrow, they will vote and we will see whether history will repeat itself or whether the indeterminates will chart a different course.

In either case, I am confident that everyone is ready to tackle our Atomic Bomb DBQ and that even without the 5 point prize to the winners, the scores will be even higher than last time.

Bonus: It was fun to hear the students still heatedly discussing this even after class had ended :)


  1. One of my favorite parts of your class was this project. It's exciting to see that you refined it and made it even better!

  2. That's right, I remember that your class really got into it and ran with it! You were on the "drop" team, if I remember correctly.