Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 08/02/2009

TLC final thoughts

logo2clargeThe APSA Teaching and Learning Conference was an enjoyable experience, both for the substantive discussions and new ideas, and for the personal contacts and networking. It is surprising how little time academics spend thinking about teaching methods, even though teaching is such a fundamental part of our professional responsibilities.

In the course of our discussions in the simulation and role-playing track, several other issues arouse that I thought I would mention or otherwise flag for discussion here.


How does one assign simulation participants to particular roles? If realism is an aim, it makes sense to match participants to roles by virtue of background knowledge and temperment. On the other hand, if substantive learning and developing empathy for the viewpoints of others are goals, it might be better to force participants to represent actors with whom they might personally disagree, or about which they have a great deal to learn.

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to this. On the face of it, the learning-through-doing-something-different approach has much to commend it. However, one can also wreck a simulation by assigning a weak participant to a key role who then fails to deliver, or by assigning participants with a weak understanding of their actor who then act in unrealistic ways. Moreover, it may well be that part of the learning process are the “sandbox” opportunities that Gary mentioned in a  previous post on the Carana sim: namely, using the simulation to try out different approaches and identify potential pitfalls and challenges. In this case, participants may want to be in something approximating their normal real-life positions. Finally, in a sim that extends outside the classroom one needs to recognize that not all participants can participate equally (given the competing demands of work, family, commuting, etc.), and assign them roles with this in mind.

In my own Brynania sim, there’s a certain amount of quasi-Darwinian selection involved in role assignments. Graduate students get first dibs. After that, it is largely first-come, first served, which means that enthusiastic students tend to snap up the most active roles quickly. Students will sometimes lobby for certain positions, presenting cogent reasons for securing a particular assignment (“I’m interning with UNHCR this summer, and I would love to be part of the UNHCR team in the sim…”). Much of the time I’ll agree.

The one area of the sim where I’ve especially had to match students to simulation roles concerns the military. I’ve found that many (political science and international development studies) students simply don’t have a strong grasp of key military terms, concepts, strategy, and tactics and consequently can find it a bit of a struggle being a key defence minister or rebel field commander. There is also another advantage of assigning soldiers/reservists/avid hobby wargamers and military historians to military roles: they can typically converse and report in milspeak, that language of acronyms, situation reports and op plans that is often so impenetrable to the aid community. Since reproducing organizational miscommunication is part of what I would like the sim to do, there’s real value in generating this through particular role assignments.


Thinking about your target audience. This really is a no-brainer that ought to come first when reflecting on simulation design and implementation: Who are your intended audience? What are they capable (and not capable) of in terms of knowledge, time, and engagement? What are your learning objectives? There is a danger, perhaps, of simulation-led simulation, in which the idea of running a sim overwhelms critical thought as to whether it truly is the best way of using scarce time and resources, or communicating particular ideas. While the lecture format is oft maligned as an old-fashioned teaching technique, I wouldn’t underestimate how much can be achieved (at much less investment of preparation time) by lecturing instead of simulating. In short, one needs to reflect on the opportunity costs of a simulation versus another approach.

As a mentioned earlier in a post on the Chatham House refugee sim, and as Gary certainly knows even better than I from his use of the Carana simulation at the World Bank, a related aspect of knowing your audience is knowing how you can, and cannot, interact with them. Students (and, presumably, junior military officers) are great sim participants: they typically do what you tell them to do, and if they don’t the instructor has all kinds of incentive and disincentive mechanisms that can be called upon to encourage appropriate participation. More senior participants may feel (and rightly so, I hasten to add) that they already know a very, very great deal, and that the simulation can’t teach them anything (which may, or may not, be true). They may even feel that “game-playing” is beneath them. One needs to strategize in advance about how to create real value-added for these sorts of participants in advance of the simulation—and to accept that their concerns are quite legitimate. Full disclosure: one participant left the Chatham House simulation because it felt like “summer camp.” However, I think the vast majority of other “campers” found the process very useful, and we were certainly extremely pleased with the findings and outputs.


Related to this, is how does one balance realism with opportunities to participate? Let’s face it, in the real world not everyone has the same amount to do, and some actors may spend a lot of time on the sidelines watching and waiting for opportunities that may never come. If you want a realistic simulation, you’ll have some participants overloaded, and others bored to tears. If you want a satisfying simulation, you want everyone to feel comfortably busy and engaged.

I suppose there are several ways of dealing with this. One can use media actors to ask questions and keep folks busy. One can insert demands for briefings and strategy papers to keep underutilized teams doing something. One can create miniscenarios that engage the otherwise less busy. Finally—and getting back to the original point about assigning participants—one can try to slot the type-A personalities in the type-A roles, and assign the more laid-back participants in the less demanding positions. 


Finally, some brief thoughts on a few terms that often ran through my head during the discussions this weekend: coolness, geeks, and looking stupid.

Measuring megafonzies of coolness with a coolometer...

Professor Hubert Farnesworth measures megafonzies of coolness with a coolometer...

How important is it that a simulation be cool (or fun, or enjoyable, or whatever term a participant is likely to use)? Obviously if it is cool but delivers little content, or even teaches the wrong things or motivates the wrong behaviour, coolness is a problem. However, as one TLC participant noted, its important not to underestimate the importance of coolness as both a  student motivator, and as a factor which will help them retain the ideas and lessons long after the simulation is over. (Oh, and for whoever mentioned it in the session, there is an empirical measure of “coolness”: the megafonzie.)

Second, many of us who run simulations are—lets face it—game geeks. Some refight Waterloo and WWII or slay orcs (or slay space marines) in their spare time, others even have full sets of epic armour on WoW (I certainly can’t claim the latter). This generates both advantages and disadvantages in our educational simming: while we may bring a great deal of game design/philosophy and role-playing experience to the process, we may have a little more trouble seeing the sim from a newbie perspective (apparently, there are some non-gamers out there too). A robust system for collecting post-sim feedback data from participants is perhaps even more important for us geeks than for others. Think of it as yet another form of cross-cultural learning.

Finally, there is the issue of fear of looking stupid. It can be, if we’re honest, a powerful motivator in getting students to devote appropriate time, energy, and preparation for a simulation (or, for that matter, a seminar presentation or any other “public” classroom performance). On the other hand, we certainly don’t want to publicly humiliate anyone. Other than recognizing the dilemma, I’m not sure I have definitive views on balancing the two. Thoughts?

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