Creating System Dynamic Simulations

Long before SimCity, I fell in love with Oregon Trial. My 5th grade classroom had one Apple 2E computer in the back and I was just as excited as all of my classmates to try and drown “my sister” as I forded a river that was too deep and moving too fast. Despite how I played the game and how my teacher used the game for instruction, Oregon Trail continues to be a great simulator, at least of economics. True, most teachers try to use the game to teach US History but really, at the heart of it, Oregon Trail asks students to think about how purchasing cost, materials transport, and environmental risk impact successful commerce—setting up a new settlement thousands of miles away from industrial centers. The only history that anyone learns is via the map as you travel across the country and through the various diseases one could contract… dysentery was my favorite, demonstrating the sense of humor of a young, American boy.

What makes Oregon Trail and SimCity so effective as simulations is the system dynamics of these games. They enable students to make decisions within the games parameters and are provided with the consequences of those decisions risk-free. With each iteration (cycle) of the simulation, students are able to process what works, what doesn’t work, and for whom inside that particular system. Thus, as Taylor and Walford (1973) explain in their seminal work on simulations, Simulation in the Classroom, there are 3 components to simulations of this kind:

  1. Students take roles that are representative of the real world, becoming involved in decision-making in response to their own assessments of what is going on in the system. These dynamic systems, if taught appropriately, can lead to students’ increased systems thinking.
  2. Students experience simulated consequences for the decisions that they make within the system. These consequences are determined by the parameters of the system design. For example, if rain makes crops grow, planting more seeds will produce more crops and, in turn, more cash. Rain is not guaranteed, though, so being overly confident can have its drawbacks.
  3. Students get a chance to monitor their results and reflect on the relationship between their choices and the consequences before entering into a new cycle.

These system dynamic simulations are in contrast to role-playing simulations. Role-playing simulations, as the name suggests, enables students to play out pre-defined roles, often in a historical context. Furthermore, students are provided with knowledge about the role that they are playing, possibly even the outcome. These simulations, which are not very constructivist from an instructional standpoint, can be very useful as an assessment of students’ learning from a system dynamic simulations because students are encouraged to demonstrate their command of the systems, contexts, and roles involved in the narrative. A fun, though expensive, online tool to create these simulations online is Kar2ouche. Otherwise, acting simulations out in person is fun too!

Before discussing how to create simulations, it is important to take a minute to discuss some ethical issues of using simulations in the classroom. I have read and heard of various teachers trying to simulate wholly inappropriate contexts such as slavery, death marches, and Holocaust death camps in their classroom. Not only are these type of activities highly offensive to people who have actually lived through those experiences, they can be psychologically harmful to students (e.g., the Standford Prison Experiment). Furthermore, these simulations have little educational value. Some things can never and should never be simulated. No matter how you create a scenario, your students will never know what it is like to be on a death march, God willing. If something is so extreme that students will never be able to even come close to an approximation, please don’t try to simulate it!

Despite some well-intentioned but unthinking teachers’ who have attempted such simulations, there are many who have had a lot of success with increasing student motivation and learning through the practice. I encourage you to look up your own disciplinary topics and find out what has worked in your content area. As a way to think about developing your own simulations, I hope the below video will help.