Social Studies Simulations – Do They Still Have a Place in Middle School?

In a recent issue of Middle School Journal, researchers Karen Burgard, Michael Boucher, and Tina Ellsworth reexamined the classroom simulation. Do they do more harm than good? AMLE CEO Stephanie Simpson sat down with the authors to learn more about the study and the key implications for educators.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity. You can read the article in its entirety in Middle School Journal Volume 55, Issue 1. AMLE members enjoy full online access to Middle School Journal.

SS: I found this article so fascinating because the use of classroom simulation in middle school is so pervasive. You include some startling headlines at the beginning of the article – I’ve included a couple of them here to give our readers context:

  • “A New York Teacher Made Black Students Act as Slaves in Mock Auctions”.
  • “Black Students Told to Pick Cotton During Lessons on Slavery”.
  • Assignment at Mississippi Middle School Asks Students to “Pretend Like You are a Slave”.

They make you wonder, how did a teacher think that was a good idea? Why do you think simulation has such an appeal for some teachers tackling difficult topics, especially with middle schoolers?

KB: The headlines are alarming themselves, but what we all found most shocking is that they’re so recent. We’re having the same conversations that educational researchers were having twenty and thirty years ago. These things are still happening. I think the appeal of simulation to teachers is two-fold. The first is that teachers genuinely, and with the best heart, really want to engage students in these difficult conversations. They want their students to understand the significance of the events they’re simulating. They want students to understand how traumatic these events were in the hopes of them never being repeated. Second, teachers themselves are often hesitant and nervous to have an open, honest, authentic dialogue with students and really let them unpack these really challenging things. The thinking is, if I have them do a hands-on activity where they take on this role or persona, then the students will glean so much and it’ll be so in-depth that I won’t have to engage in this conversation. I won’t have to facilitate that really hard conversation.

MB: There’s also a learning curve. Often, coming out of college, new teachers haven’t had these conversations themselves. Teacher preparation programs generally try to include some of these conversations, but it may be only in one or two classes. Simulation becomes a way to talk about it without actually talking about it.

SS: Let’s dig into that engagement piece. You note in the article that while engagement may be supported by simulations in the social studies context, they’re not significantly more likely to improve learning outcomes. Can you talk a little more about the pros and cons of using simulations in the context of social studies, and specifically with middle schoolers?

TE: Students can have difficulty separating themselves from the simulation. If they took on the role of someone in an oppressive position, that can very easily be something the student takes when they leave the classroom. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the actual and intended outcomes. Especially when kids don’t have a lot of historical context, then they’re put in a position where they’re asked to take on an oppressor role (and especially if you have students who really are of particular races taking on the roles of people from the past who are also of those races). Race doesn’t go away when the simulation is over. If they in any way internalize that as oppressed or oppressor, it can difficult for them to separate that.

KB: We often hear middle school teachers say, “the kids get so much out of it,” but the research doesn’t support that. There are instances we discuss in the article where simulations advance learning outcomes, but they’re mostly related to STEM topics. In terms of social studies, what we have found over the decades is that the learning outcomes are not improved by use of simulation as opposed to other pedagogical strategies. Any positive learning outcomes that we think the students may be getting they would get more richly from just using the primary documents and having these tough conversations. The other thing we hear is that it will teach kids empathy. But overwhelmingly they do not develop that skill because of simulation. I think the disconnect is between what teachers think will result from the simulation and what’s actually happening.

SS: You mention the stock market game in your article. This is one of those simulations that’s more “fun.” But, of course, there’s a difference between fun and engaging. Do you see “fun” as a draw for teachers in using simulation as well?

KB: Tina and I talk about that one quite often! I think the stock market game can be engaging and fun, but the deep, meaningful, comprehension and understanding that teachers think students are getting from it isn’t really there. Kids aren’t really understanding what goes into investing, what goes into getting a loan, what it means to own a stock. They understand if their stock wins and they understand winning or losing. But I don’t think they understand the intricacies of the stock market and what happens with it plummets.

TE: It’s so funny you brought that one up. That’s one that I haven’t fully removed from my repertoire of simulations. I do think it helps kids understand speculation, misreading a market, and what it feels like to lose everything suddenly. But I do think there is so often a mismatch between what we think students have learned and what they’re actually taking away from the simulation. If teachers took the side of never doing simulations ever, you’re going to be way safer than doing a simulation and picking a really bad one. I actually have this flow chart that’s been passed down to me, I have no idea where it originated, but it guides teachers through a decision tree when selecting a simulation. And the first question is, is it fun? If your first priority is whether it’s fun, don’t do it! Your priority should always be student learning, not just “fun.” When you say “fun,” you’re probably getting into something dicey. And you need to ask yourself whether you even have the healthy classroom community where you can do something like this. We know teachers are going to do simulations, whether we advise against them or not, so we need to help them make good decisions. One thing I advise my teacher candidates to consider is whether your own background knowledge is rich enough prior to using a simulation. Can you identify any misrepresentations or myths that might come up through the simulation? If you can’t, then you don’t know what you’re putting in front of kids. Lastly, is there a way to make it analogous to something else? Maybe the analog would be a safer way to conduct the simulation.

MB: When writing the article, we also discussed the difference between games and simulations. When I was teaching high school, a colleague received a grant so that his class could invest real money. They did research together and invested real money in the stock market. It wasn’t a simulation, it was authentic. If you can make things authentic as opposed to a game or simulation, you’re always better off.

KB: Like Tina said, teachers are still going to use simulations. In addition to the debrief that is so critical after the simulation, the pre work is critical as well. Not just for the teacher’s own historical knowledge, but to explain to students why they’re learning something and why it’s important.

SS: As you said, teachers are going to continue to use simulations. You include four very helpful questions teachers can ask themselves before using a simulation. We’ve touched on the first three, and I’d encourage readers to explore the article fully, but let’s talk now about the fourth: Are you asking students to defend the indefensible or justify the unjustifiable? Can we dig into that one?

MB: The questions are intended to help keep students in the front of our minds when making these decisions. We’re asking teachers to filter all of their classroom experiences through the lens of always building, rather than breaking, relationships, contracts, and solidarity. You would never want them to defend something indefensible, or to do something that would break their own moral code. Like, for example, where they have to say, “I’m not for slavery, but I’m going to write an ad for an enslaved person.” You’re asking them to do something against the moral code you’ve been trying to help them develop all year. Teachers think that if they’ve already built that culture it can’t go away. But the truth is it can go away.

TE: I can recall an example from an 8th grade teacher who wasn’t directly pitting kids against each other, like what happens during simulations when students reenact the slave trade. It was more of a game where kids were asked to make as much money as they could for their family. To make the most money, kids had to invest in businesses that were dependent on slave labor. The slave labor part was kind of hidden, so it wasn’t even discussed up front with the students. Even when the students did see it, they felt they had to do it because the objective of the game was to make the most money. In that moment, you’re putting students in a position to defend slavery. They’re actively defending it through the choices they’re making. Teachers really need to think through the nuance of the activities they’re using.

KB: Most middle schools teach U.S. history, and we see quite often where teachers are covering the Civil War and divide the class into the North and the South and ask students to defend why their side is for/against slavery. You’re attributing to half of the class the role of the South and it’s really hard for middle school students to disconnect. We don’t need students to speak on behalf of the South because we have the primary documents that show why the South did what they did and made the choices they made.

SS: You’ve given our readership a lot to think about. If you wanted current practitioners to take one insight away from the article, what would it be?

MB: Rather than create fictions, let students do the work of stories. Let them dig into primary documents and the actual history. So many of my teacher candidates have this idea that they’re going to have students create some historical fiction. Like, what if the South won the war? And I say, OK, that may be interesting to you as someone who has now spent four years studying history, but your middle schoolers don’t have that depth of understanding. The stories themselves are more fascinating and dramatic than fiction in so many ways. To have students focus on the actual events, documents, photographs, and stories – that’s the ideal.

TE: A lot of teachers are looking for engaging activities. When I put primary sources in front of students, they’re pretty dang engaged! We often underestimate how engaging using voices from the past can be in learning about it. If teachers are adamant that they are going to use a simulation, then make sure it’s not going to be harmful to kids. Don’t just do something because it looks like it might be fun.

KB: I echo my colleagues. Use the primary sources! Whether it’s photographs, newspapers, or diaries – it’s out there. We list a variety of resources where you can find these in the article. It’s really important for students to hear the voices of the people that lived during that time and let them grapple with those difficult issues, facilitated by you as the teacher in a way that’s meaningful, authentic, and respectful.