Simulation in schools

I get Google Alerts every day about new stories related to simulation. Its fascinating how much simulation is now being used in schools, mostly US schools, to train a wide range of subjects:
leadership training packages by the US Army. (“…students guide avatars through a series of meetings and make them delegate tasks to employees. If the manager doesnt direct people in the right way, game characters may nod off, get up from meetings, or develop a dislike for their superior. It works in real time, and its supplemented with online reading and interactive lessons to teach leadership styles to senior cadets.”)
sportsmanship and character education in Alabama schools
safe driving in St Louis
personal budgeting in Indianapolis
as well as the usual business and politics simulations. Sometimes it seems to be done for no real reason, or for rather silly reasons.

Two comments: one, it seems to be very patchy. Some schools simulate some things, others dont. Secondly I return to my usual theme: a simulation is not a black box, but it is often treated as one. It contains its own model of system behaviour, whether that system is other people or a car. This model may or may not be realistic: it is most likely to be realistic in the centre of its spectrum of events, but less and less realistic as you approach the ends of the spectrum/ (See Marks anecdote about Australian military kangaroos.)

Any simulation user ought really to understand the model (s)he is using, and appreciate its limits, otherwise you risk learning the wrong things. Wrong perhaps in subtle ways.

Im particularly surprised at the US Army example. I can see the argument that firing expensive missiles is – well, expensive – so its cheaper and better to do most of your missile training on simulators. Anyway, a missile, though complex, is a man-made system and somebody somewhere understands almost exactly how it will behave. (You have to believe this…)

But human beings are one thing the US Army has plenty of; theyre available all the time, using them incurs no incremental cost, and practising human leadership skills should be easier than installing software, sitting humans down in front of terminals which simulate human responses, and making them play games in order understand how the human playing games at the terminal next door thinks and behaves. Its a bit circular, dont you think?

In the Alabama case, the Times Daily reports that:
“While the program is not mandatory, State Superintendent Joe Morton and legislators encouraged fourth-grade teachers to use the game in the classroom as an effective way to comply with the states character education law. Brian M. Shulman, a former Auburn punter whose Birmingham-based company Learning Through Sports created the program, said the videogame is not meant to take the place of teachers, parents and coaches in character education. But he said the game is a good way to connect to todays tech-savvy kids, whom he called “digital natives”.”
(A cynic might decode this as: here we have a law that seemed a good idea at the time, but which no-one really understands. However, everyone wants to be seen to comply, to tick that question on the audit sheet. Here is a black box which, if bought, can be claimed to meet that obligation. Of course we arent claiming it is the whole answer, but installing it, and sitting students in front of it for x hours per week, is easier than thinking.)

I suspect that Prof Turkle might also argue (and Id agree) that the more we respond to simulated behaviour, the more we alter ourselves: so that if we are trained (by simulators) to accept certain standards or patterns of human behaviour, we begin to apply these not only in our understanding of our fellow humans, but also to the way we ourselves behave. So the model becomes self-fulfilling.

I think we have to keep reminding ourselves that simulation is a tool to help us deal with reality – not that reality itself. But the interplay between the two is getting more complex by the hour; as somebody I cant place at this moment says, we make our tools, then our tools make us.

I dont want in any way to criticise Brian M Shulman or his company Learning Through Sports, which has a heavyweight Advisory Board to guide it. But what aspects of childrens development are schools handing over to his judgement (ie his simulation model), or to the models of dozens of other small simulation companies throughout the world?

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Simulation in schools

According to the “Journal Review” of Crawfordsville, IN, USA, a retired police officer went into the lobby of Tuttle Middle School last week, produced a gun, shot the school principal, and went from room to room making incoherent demands. He killed nearly a dozen staff members before police stormed the building and shot him.

No children were at school that day, and everyone knew that the exercise would happen. The ammunition was blank, the victims only pretending to be shot.

Scarcely worth recording, since many schools hold exercises (eg of fire drills).

Most are not as dramatic as this one. But it shows another area in which simulation takes place. The rationale in this case was that, although the participants knew the incident was being simulated, they did not know what the terrorist would do, or how they would react to stress, and the noise of gunshots, etc.

This sort of simulation is conducted on a monthly basis in Crawfordsville (sounds a place to steer clear of) and paid for by a $100,000 US government grant.


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