Teachers of dispute resolution are constantly grappling with the question of best practices and methodologies. One of the most popular methodologies is simulations, whose value is in harnessing different learning styles. Some people learn by reading, some by writing and others by speaking. Some learn through spirituality, emotions, the physical (kinesthetic) and as a result of gender, race or cultural attributes and styles. Probably the most popular notion is that we learn by doing.
Many new educational trends come under the general heading of andragogy. Pedagogy, the teaching of children, features the child as empty vessel, with the teacher as authority figure, downloading information. Rote learning of axioms, postulates, times tables and Euclidian geometric forms is typical. Andragogy, or adult learning, features the teacher as co-learner, small group discussions, reporting back to the larger group and the harnessing of the life experiences of students.
Simulations are considered active or andragogical learning—the “doing” part. Simulations can “model a complex process or reality,” wherein participants are “in an assigned role.”19 Rule-based simulations can be real, made-up, or computer-enhanced and are usually face-to-face experiences. They are safe; errors are “not costly and experimentation is encouraged.”
Some simulations have “elements of games and role-plays.” Confidential instructions give “players” target outcomes. Rewards for players who work together can be featured. In negotiations that are not zero-sum, there is great range for intrigue and enticements.
For some, “doing” as a learning tool helps internalize lessons into the learner’s cognitive process and yields “changed thought patterns and actions.”23 This is sometimes called “experiential learning” and elevates “ordinary experience.”24 Incidental or “collateral learning” similarly elevates happenstance.25 Some contend that we must learn in pairs or groups (ignoring the great solitary achievements of Sir Isaac Newton, among many others).
One of the best justifications for simulations is that “the classroom is a great place to show you blew a million dollars” in a game with high ersatz expenditures.26 There are various definitions of, and opinions about, the value of realism, role reversals, the necessity of debriefing and so on.27 Some say simulations are not complex enough, because in real life, we are not just the roles we play. Part of the debate involves whether experiential learning is more authentic than learning in laboratory-like settings.28 There’s another debate about how well students can switch gender, race or religion.29 Many teachers advocate supplementing “simulations with case studies, videotapes, and even computer-based exercise.”
In the end, one may be left with the obvious notions that there are different learning styles and the more a teacher brings all the senses into play, the better.31 The more a teacher engages students on all possible levels, the better. But is there anything new in these concepts?
One hundred years ago, prairie schoolteachers began lessons in this way: “Farmer Brown has nine chickens, each laying two eggs a day. Eggs sell for x cents a dozen. Shingles are y cents a square foot. How many days will it take farmer Brown to save enough money to shingle his 100-square-foot barn roof?”
This was a simulation, of sorts. Teachers once called this problem-based learning (PBL).32 Problems or simulations have been augmented over the years with real eggs, slate, chalk, teaching machines, mimeographs, films, filmstrips, video and the Internet. The modern educator, while grazing on new ways to motivate a class, teach a concept or even deal with the imperative of occupying time in an interesting way, must consider what is really new and beneficial in a technique.
Many professionals, not just teachers, have perspectives on simulations. The military use war games. Simulating creeping barrages with officers on horseback and elaborate exercises behind the lines for weeks is what won the battle of Vimy Ridge for the Canadians. Far from the cheap alternative alluded to above, military exercises are so expensive that many of them are often done in slow motion. In military simulations, you fire a $10,000 shell and then conduct a debriefing. Multiple shells are not fired, as they would be in a real war. Firefighters, the police and some in industry test their abilities to respond to myriad events with real fire, real car chases and the actual deployment of remediation gear.
It may be that “there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction.” There may also be no substitute for silent reading, writing, speaking, listening, reflection, spirituality, kinesthetic activity or any of the other elements in learning.39 In fact, in face-to-face simulation work, students often begin by listening to a teacher’s lecture, reading instructions on paper, asking questions for clarification, speaking with a fellow role-player, debriefing and joining in a class discussion. In other words, face-to-face interaction is only part of many educational techniques normally in play in every course. Moreover, the growth of distance education may be testimony to the ability of the Web to accommodate diverse learning styles, languages and cultures in multiple time zones. It is refreshing to engage another student or client on Web technology without necessarily knowing the gender, accent, clothing or ethnicity of that person.
Whether in groups or alone, augmented with technology or not, reality is often the best teacher. I don’t see the need to fabricate events in a simulation.41 The famous Sally Soprano negotiation is a case-in-point. One student plays the role of an aging opera singer hoping for one last hurrah. Another plays an opera-house manager and is told to get Sally to work for a certain fee or less. If that is accomplished, s/he has completed the task, and Sally gets her hurrah. The learning lies in the discovery that Sally would have sung for much less. Students, not being opera singers or opera- house managers, nonetheless learn something of the subterfuge of negotiation and how knowing more about the other side can help. But in this and most case studies, complex details may be distractions. While it is true that real-life cases feature countless details, emotions and diversions, a teacher must consider which of these are salient and which are tangential points. The teacher also needs to consider whether unpredictable lessons, or incidental learning (always occurring, one assumes) is central or whether a more structured, predictable curriculum is required.
More learning may occur if students play themselves in new situations, as opposed to fictitious people in new and unfamiliar situations. What it is like to be another person in another occupation may be interesting but is often a diversion from the learning goal. At best it involves speculation about that person, business dilemma or life situation. The teacher can assign students a realistic role—confidante, coach or counsel to the opera singer or opera-house manager. Students (or counsel in real life) would not know all the background to the client’s situation. There are roles in this negotiation for students with skill in tax, publicity, media, building management, security, intellectual property and more. Harnessing this real-life experience might more closely approximate the intent of andragogy, from which other students and the teacher can learn.
There are other ways to achieve realism and harness expertise in classrooms. The teacher or student can present a real case that s/he was involved in or has thoroughly researched. The case can be presented in sequence, real time and accelerated time or with time-outs for debriefing. Students can work in small groups to discuss how the players would advise the characters in the event. The fact that the event is real, and the teacher can debrief and be debriefed on how it actually played out, adds learning value.
Technical and accurate details are needed. Many educated and/or experienced people will balk if they cannot get background facts or if those offered are not technically accurate. Research enhances simulations.
Rules enhance learning as well. The opera manager has limited incentive to bargain with Sally for a lower fee because just one dollar under the target is a victory. Perhaps a bonus, or the incentive of being able to pay reduced property taxes (from the proceeds of advanced sales) by a certain deadline, would provide better motivation.
Time compression is usually an enhancement as well. In reality, if one needs to prepare for a full opera house six months hence, there is no need to order programs for a few weeks to come. But if urgency is built into the simulation, participants need to exercise quick judgment in real time and live with the consequences. Imperatives created by time zones, legislative hearings and media inquiries can both speed things up and intensify the learning experience. In the Sally Soprano case, it might be the need to hold a mock news conference at the end of class or write advertising copy for next week’s newspaper.
Finally, the need to engage participants fully is a challenge. Ultimately, simulations are fake and you didn’t actually blow any money at all. So how does one get the heart racing with a zeal for the deal or generate tension if agreement is slipping away? Mock legislative or regulatory hearings at which participants must explain themselves, fake media interviews, formal briefings of the boss and other such imperatives can put students on the spot so they get the most out of the event. A less structured approach, where students privately debrief each other and quickly move on to the next exercise, is less valuable.