Let Them Play: Enhancing Student Motivation Through Simulations

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Let Them Play: Enhancing Student Motivation Through Simulations

By Charles Gleek

How do teachers construct meaningful, engaging learning experiences for students that tap into a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn? The first component of the problem is that of student engagement, defined as the extent to which a student’s behavior is positively aligned with school values, outcomes, or activities (Fredericks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). A second and interrelated aspect of the problem is that of student motivation. An individual’s intrinsic motivation is understood as the reasons for individual behavior that is a function of personal enjoyment or interest. By way of example, individuals are motivated by their sense of autonomy, their mastery of a subject or problem, and their sense of purpose (Pink, 2009). The most effective classroom instructors are those that motivate their students to learn by understanding what matters to each individual in their classrooms and then constructing challenging, engaging learning experiences (Hattie, 2009).

Simulations and games as instructional practice
We incorporate a wide variety of simulations and games into our classroom experience in International Baccalaureate (IB) Global Politics. Students play Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock as they come to apply their understanding of game theory and models of decision making from the world outside the classroom. Thiagarajan’s (1997) Forbidden Words game is a great way to assess student reading comprehension, particularly with challenging excerpts from primary sources, book chapters, or journal articles. We play card based games such as Asal’s (2005) Classical Realism and Allendoerfer’s (2014) Fearon’s Rationalist Theory of War in order to make sense of intricate concepts such as the distribution of power or the security dilemma in ways that allows students to extend and apply their understanding beyond reading and discussion. Board games such as Pandemic or Economicon give learners to the chance to play with a range of concepts in hypothetical situations which mimic real-world challenges of global public health or economic inequality where outcomes are disparate, murky, and unresolved. Simulations from Harvard’s Project on Negotiation such as One Village, Six People or Tulia and Ibad challenge students to conduct in-depth research prior to adopting characters or roles to play in lengthy simulations where their preferences and decisions are carried out in exigent circumstances.

Motivation and learning through simulations and games
The intellectual liberty to think and act in preparation of, during, and the debriefing phase of simulations is unlike all other forms of learning or assessment. Simulations provide students with the incentive and opportunity to adopt the role of a decision maker and apply their understanding of key portions of the curriculum in distinctive fashion. Whereas students in science classes use their laboratory experiments as a way to act as scientists, simulations serve as an analogous experience for students studying politics in the classroom. As two 11th grade students commented recently in a debriefing session; “Participating in games and simulations is my favorite way to learn about global politics because it allows me to act as a firsthand participant.” and “I strongly believe that this approach (learning through simulations) is more effective and enjoyable than traditional classroom structured learning. The freedom given in simulations and games only strengthens my understanding of global politics.” This commentary is tied together by the idea that students are motivated to learn about world politics because their participation in classroom simulations offers them a way to participate in the construction of their own knowledge.

Playing in order to learn
Incorporating simulations and games into regular instructional practice is essential to motivating all types of learners. Preparing for, participating in, and reflecting on an experience in simulations and games meet all five characteristics of Newmann and Wehlage’s (1993) standards for authentic instruction. If one is serious about students-their learning, their development, their empowerment-then it is our professional responsibility to ensure that we are constructing engaging environments where our students are always eager to learn.

Allendoerfer, M. (2014, February 21). Fearon’s rational theory of war. Retrieved from http://activelearningps.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/michelle-allendoerfer-fearons-rational-theory-of-war/
Asal, V. (2005). Playing games with international relations. International Studies Perspectives, 6(3), 359-373
Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School Engagement: Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
Newmann, F. M., & Wehlage, G. G. (1993). Five standards of authentic instruction. Educational Leadership, 50(7), 8-12. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr93/vol50/num07/Five-Standards-of-Authentic-Instruction.aspx
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Thiagarajan, S. (1997). Forbidden words: A framegame for reviews. Retrieved from http://www.thiagi.com/game-forbidden.html

Dr. Charles Gleek teaches IB Global Politics at North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, FL. Follow Charlie on Twitter @games_frontiers and online at http://gameswithoutfrontiers.org.

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Mark Barnes is the author of many education books, including Bestseller Hacking Education, part of his Hack Learning Series, books that solve big problems with simple ideas. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and student-centered learning. Join more than 100,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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