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Simulations Engage Students
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Simulations engage students in ways that few other activities can. Teacher Max Fischer, the author of a book of simulation activities for the social studies classroom, shares his initial simulation experiences, his process for creating simulations, and tips for using simulations in the classroom. Included: Fischer shares a favorite simulation activity, The King's M&M's.


Max Fischer is a National Board Certified teacher in the area of early adolescence. In his social studies and history classes, he uses simulation activities to engage students in active learning about events, concepts, and emotions connected to the area of study.

"I believe Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has enlightened many educators to the different learning strengths various students bring with them," Fischer told Education World. "While schools dominate in linguistic and logical/mathematical types of intelligences [w]e tend to forget that affective and psycho-motor (or tactile) areas of learning are worthy avenues to pursue with most students.

"When students are given an affective outlet in which their feelings are aroused to stimulate learning, we are increasing their opportunities to learn cognitively as well," added Fischer. "Simulations help deliver variety to my instruction and keep students engaged to the point that discipline rarely becomes an issue."

Education World talked with Fischer about using and creating simulation activities in the classroom.


Simulation Activity Resource

Mysteries of Antiquity: Lessons to Engage Middle School Students in Ancient/Medieval History, written by teacher Max Fischer, was published by the Social Science Education Consortium. The book offers 13 lively, classroom-tested activities that motivate students to better understand events of the past and how we learn about them. Included are activities that engage students in
* simulating the construction of Stonehenge
* researching the death of King Tutankhamen
* deciphering hieroglyphics
* conducting a mock trial in ancient Athens
* participating in a game that simulates the fate of the lowland Mayans
* analyzing maps to develop a position statement about where Leif Ericson's Vinland was located.
These cooperative learning activities involve students in developing skills in mapping, note taking, critical thinking, and much more. All activities include printable handouts for classroom use.

Fischer's previous teacher resource books include American History Simulations, World History Simulations, Geography Simulations, Ancient History Simulations, and Medieval Simulations. All those titles were published by Teacher Created Materials, Inc.

Education World: In your view, what constitutes a simulation?

Max Fischer: I view a simulation as a staged replication of an event or concept through the teacher's manipulation of the classroom setting in order to enhance students' understanding of the nature of the concept or event. It can be as simple as one prop, such as a sign proclaiming Free Ice Cream Tomorrow, in order to elicit a student response. It can be an elaborately structured role play. It could be a deliberate ploy to draw students into a specific emotional response. It could last for a few minutes or for a few days.

EW: Do you recall your first experience with a simulation activity? Were you immediately successful?

Fischer: During my second year of teaching, in the mid-1970s, I recall simulating the African slave trade by having students rotating on a daily basis for about a week various roles associated with that topic -- tribal chief, slave trader, colonial buyer, and slave. Students who were slaves were matched with another student, starting with a chief, and were passed down the network from trader to buyer. The slaves had to do menial tasks, such as carrying books and sharpening pencils, for the other students. What I recall is that the students did (to a small degree) begin to appreciate the indignities to which slaves were subjected. The tradeoff was that some students found it very difficult to handle the role of being a slave. I decided at that point that the simulation would be overly sensitive to a number of students in any given classroom. I haven't repeated it since.

EW: Do you have a favorite original simulation activity?

Fischer: After a number of years in teaching during which time I had used simulations sporadically at best, I created an activity that crystallized the engaging effects of a worthy simulation. I called it The King's M & M's. In order to get my students to realize how American colonists really felt about King George's Stamp Act and the subsequent Intolerable Acts, which taxed various imported goods such as tea, I gave each student ten M&M's in a paper cup. I randomly assigned roles where most students were colonists, two were tax collectors, two were members of Parliament, and one was King George. Members of Parliament drew slips of paper out of a hat on which I had written down the names of some common items. These items -- for example, blue jeans, Nike shoes, or eyeglasses -- would be subject to taxation. The tax collectors came around and withdrew a specific number of candy pieces for each taxable item if a student possessed that item. The confiscated candies were distributed among Parliament members and the king (with a few going to the tax collectors). The student colonists were infuriated, and I compared their umbrage of the apparent inequity in candy distribution to what the colonists actually felt toward the British system of taxation. The fact that the students had no say in what was taxed in the classroom paralleled the infamous "taxation without representation" sentiment of the colonists.

Later, at parent conferences, one set of parents remarked to me how powerful a lesson that had been. There had been a lengthy discussion at the dinner table the very evening of The King's M & M's, and these parents remarked positively on the impression the simulation had left on their child.

EW: How do you come up with the ideas for your simulation activities?

Fischer: My simulations are built around a core belief that basic human emotions have driven people and events in history. The desire to improve one's life, fear of the unknown or different, religious and economic pursuits and the lust for power have been dominant motivators throughout mankind's existence. Circumstances have changed through the years, but the basic internal motivators remain constant. We share our basic humanity with a multitude of generations who have preceded us in an array of cultures. I look for one of those emotional catalysts within a historical topic and then proceed to emulate it to some degree within the classroom similar to the structure of The King's M&M's. Let's face it, to a middle school student, candy is a form of economic motivator.

EW: How often do you use simulations in the classroom?

Fischer: I teach about ancient civilizations. I use about two or three simulations for each civilization unit. As mentioned earlier, some simulations are carried out in a few minutes while others can last a week. Personally, I am fond of those simulations that can be completed within a lesson's time because usually teachers have so much material that needs to be covered. Sometimes they are used as an anticipatory set where students are drawn into the civilization with the simulation before actual instruction begins. Sometimes I use a simulated review game to conclude a unit.

EW: What advice would you have for a teacher who is about to use a simulation activity for the very first time?

Fischer: If you are using a prepared simulation from a resource book, read through it thoroughly and become as familiar with its instructions as possible. The first time with anything will be somewhat rough until you become confident in its use.

I would also urge that if a simulation is focused on creating a certain emotional response out of the students, such as the anger of the colonists in The King's M&M's, be sure to debrief students before the end of the class period, so the students understand the relationship of the activity to the historical concept in the instructional objective.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, each teacher needs to know his/her students to the point that the teacher uses good "teacher sense" in determining whether a simulation is appropriate for their particular classroom. I created one simulation, Masters of the World, where, with the help of my principal, one group of students seemingly was granted a number of precious favors in an attempt to mimic Hitler's notion of a "master (most-favored) race." Even though the simulation would never last beyond a particular school day, I noted that this simulation would not be suitable for students with any sort of emotional issues, and that it should never be instituted along lines of ethnic or racial characteristics within the class.

EW: Are there specific topics or subjects that lend themselves to simulations better than others?

Fischer: Because I teach social studies, I have made great use of simulations to teach lessons about history, geography, economics, and their associated concepts. As a former self-contained elementary classroom teacher, I have also written several books that dealt entirely with simulations in health. I am aware of simulations being used with scientific topics, and I could easily envision them being suitable for lessons in literature.


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