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I’ve been exploring this idea of “vintage learning” all month. It’s a simple idea. Sometimes the best way to look forward is to look back. Some of our most innovative lessons are actually low-tech. 

Two students in my social studies pedagogy class chose an area that they knew students would find confusing and maybe even a little boring: ancient China, trade, and the geopolitical structure. They knew that students would lack both prior knowledge and intrinsic motivation to learn this topic. In other words, you don’t see kids flocking to the library to check out a book on ancient Chinese trade practices.

A few nights ago, this pair delivered their lessons to our class. Instead of starting with an informational text or a lecture to build prior knowledge, they started with a simulation. They divided the class up into small groups and passed out cards with trade items. Then, at each round, groups rolled dice to determine their potential yields on natural resources, followed by a chance to trade with other groups. But there was a catch: the teacher, representing China, determined the cost of silk.

In the end, we had a firm understanding of the role of luck in natural resources, the bitterness that can happen between nations, the role of trade, and the way that a nation could use economic imperialism to control their neighbors.

Why Simulations Lead to Deeper Learning

When I taught social studies, we often used simulations to process complex ideas. We did a communist, capitalist, and socialist version of Monopoly, before students ultimately bargained on how to create a mixed economy. We played a modified version of Risk in order to understand how the alliance system, imperialism, and nationalism would contribute toward World War I (and how a single “small event” could launch a war). We turned the class into a factory to learn about industrialization and we did a paper ball fight to see aspects of the Civil War.

Notice that simulations don’t have to be confined to social studies. They work in any subject where you are trying to get students to think about a complex, abstract idea or system. Here are some of the benefits of using simulations:

  1. Simulations bridge the abstract and the concrete. They are fully immersive. You are moving around, physically maneuvering your environment to make sense of the information.
  2. The information sticks after a simulation. They become mental models that students go back to in order to make sense out of what they have learned.
  3. Student engagement increases. Most simulations have a goal in mind and students are actively making decisions that allow them to process the information in real-time. They go beyond what Schlecty calls “strategic compliance” (high attention but low commitment) and into a place where they have full buy-in.
  4. Students at any ability level can access the information in a simulation. It is not necessarily reading-dependent or writing-dependent.
  5. Simulations push critical thinking. Students are making decisions that require the analysis and synthesis. Later, they can use the simulation to answer critical thinking questions. For example, in the factory simulation, students then answer questions about the pros and cons of industrialization, the development of labor unions, and the impact on society.

Note that simulations work best when dealing with abstract ideas and complex systems. A predator and prey version of tag can help students think about the food chain, but a simulation showing how stanzas work will tank.

Keeping Simulations Low-Tech

Online simulations have existed since the days of Oregon Trail. I remember, because I was there — actively avoiding dying dysentery on the bright green road to Oregon. Online simulations can provide a faster, cleaner, easier way for students to make sense out of the information. However, what if that’s not the goal? What if there’s a cost in going for faster, cleaner, and easier? What if the very physical, tangible, messy, and chaotic elements of a physical simulation are actually what lead to higher engagement and deeper thinking?

There’s something powerful about the tangible element in a low-tech simulation. Breakout EDU is blowing up, because it inspires students to solve problems by manipulating objects in the real world. This tactile element is something we sometimes lose sight on as we push toward all things digital. Yes, online games are great. True, virtual reality is just beginning to take off. However, physical simulations remind us that the most realistic virtual reality might just be the world we are actively making virtual with things like notecards and paper.

Physical simulations are less programmed. They’re more adaptable. They don’t require an additional interface in order to use them. Our screens can create an artificial distance that we don’t want in a simulation. When Mackenzie and Austin created a Chinese trade simulation, we could see the changes in prices firsthand. If we had participated in an on-screen simulation, it would have felt distant. We would have felt, on some level, like we were watching it at a distance rather than actively making it happen.

Our world is changing. Social media means we live with one foot in the digital world and one foot in the physical world. Virtual reality is just beginning to reach viability. Artificial intelligence is still in its primitive stages, while augmented reality finally hit mainstream this summer with Pokemon Go.

None of those trends scare me. In fact, they excite me. However, sometimes the most innovative solution isn’t high-tech. Sometimes it’s vintage. Sometimes the best way to be relevant is to step away from the digital and virtual and abstract and embrace the tangible and tactile and to augment your reality with nothing more than your imagination.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • John, I began my teaching 41 years ago in 1975 and was lucky enough to have a 65 year old cooperating teacher by the name of Dorthy Williams who introduced me to the Panic Simulation ( interact simulation on the 1920s-30s). I had to smile as I read your blog this afternoon! We have been doing various simulations in U.S. History classes here at D.C. Everest for nearly a half century and they are still the best way for kids to learn ( especially if you want them to retain what they’ve learned). I read Launch this past summer as well as all of your books and AJ’s. Great stuff! Keep up the good work. PS. We have all 175 APUSH students doing Genius Projects around an American Historical Problem.

    Paul Aleckson, K-12 Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator, D.C. Everest Schools in WI

  • Joe Hunter says:

    I love the Risk idea. I have been using it as a reference in history class for several years. This week alone, I have lost count of the number of times I have referenced the game when discussing the MAIN causes of WWI. I have struggled to effectively use it in the classroom in a 47 minute period. I am very curious how you used the game in the classroom. Was it an online simulation? Did you set up the game? Did you have multiple boards?

  • Megan Machen says:

    Do you have any good resources for finding simulations? I teach a 7th grade humanities class. We cover geography and Kansas History

  • susan brown says:

    I agree and need no reminder for why simulations are an important curriculum tool because they are fun (in the right hands) inspire BIG thinking and more. SO now I’d love to know a source for creative simulations. I’ve had a few brainstorm ideas that went well (even when the kids thought they were undermining the “game” — that was the point!), but thinking about them requires time. Is there a group of educators that share such ideas? I know you are all about creative thinking, so maybe you have a few ideas about getting

  • Kevin Keaveney says:

    You are spot on regarding simulations. I have taught 8th grade Civics/US History since 1993 and I have created and adapted many simulations to help my students understand events as well as perspectives. It’s easy to judge events but it becomes more challenging when you have to make those decisions from someone else’s position. Having to walk across the classroom and negotiate with other characters takes learning to a new level. I am about to merge two of my simulations where they will role play the First Continental Congress and address the Coercive Acts and then a few days later reconvene as the Second Continental Congress to consider independence.

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