Beyond the Textbook: Incorporating Simulations into the Classroom

Students working in industrialization simulation with marbles representing items on an assembly line

As teachers, we are always looking for ways to create new and engaging lesson plans that students actually enjoy. The main problem though, is that students always seem so “bored” by school. Over the past six months, I set out to think about why they are so bored. And then it hit me…our students thrive on experiences.

Lately my students (and probably yours, too) have been overwhelmingly consumed with playing the popular online video game, Fortnite – it seems that it is all I ever hear about! When asked why they are so obsessed with the game, I received two main answers. First, the game allows players to get swept up in their avatar and the storyline. Secondly, there are several neat gadgets for players to experiment with – it triggers their curiosity and problem-solving skills, whether they realize it or not. Overall, teens love Fortnite because the game immerses them in an unique experience.

So why can’t we teach social studies in a way that makes it an experience? For my classroom, simulations have seemed to be the answer. Each unit, I have added at least one simulation that lets students experience a time period in American history, or a process in government. By allowing students to immerse themselves in a simulation, we are giving them permission to draw conclusions and learn from experiences. Some of my student’s favorite simulations have included

  • Industrialization Assembly Lines
  • WWI Trench Warfare
  • Paranoia during the Red Scare
  • “The Game of Life” – Great Depression Version
  • Sodas & The Electoral College
  • How a Bill becomes a Law
  • And more…

To my surprise, creating simulations were not as daunting as I once thought. Here is my advice for creating an engaging and effective simulation in your classroom:

    1. Choose a “Take-Away” – When you plan your next unit, choose one or two major concepts that you want students to take away and remember. Designing your simulation around “big idea” material allows students to grasp it in a more meaningful and applicable way.
    2. Teach the Basics – You can plan the best simulation in the world, but if students do not have background knowledge, it will not make as much of an impact. By teaching key content previously, even just vocabulary, you can have a simulation that is far less difficult for students to understand and draw understanding from.
    3. Create a Simple, Clear Simulation – The last thing you want during your simulation are confused students. They get confused, cranky, and eventually give up. While they should be challenging, simulations shouldn’t make students frustrated and give up. Personally, that way I beat this is by planning and creating simple, step-by-step instructions that I not only follow, but give to the students as well. By setting expectations and giving clear instructions, we can reach the desired goal that much more easily.
    4. Reflect & Apply – Hands down, the most important part of creating a simulation experience is reflection. I repeat – reflect, reflect, reflect! By asking students reflection questions (either verbally or on an assignment), they are connecting their experience to the content – and hopefully, they will take away the main point(s) that you wanted them to!

Once I started implementing simulations into each unit of both my American History and U.S. Government courses, I have seen a peak in interest and understanding. After taking a poll of my students, over 51 percent claimed that they prefer hands-on learning instead of lectures, notes, or even the ever-popular hyperdocs. In fact, when I review material with students before a unit test, far more students remember the content that was accompanied by a simulation than the material that was not. If you can teach the content, create an activity for students to experience the content, and draw connections to apply their knowledge, they will never forget the lesson. And, fingers crossed, they won’t be bored anymore either.