David Gibson is creator of simSchool (http://www.simschool.org), a classroom flight simulator for training teachers, currently funded by the US Department of Education FIPSE program and eFolio, an online performance assessment system. His research and publications include work on complex systems analysis and modeling of education, Web applications and the future of learning, the use of technology to personalize education, and the potential for games and simulation-based learning. He founded The Global Challenge Award, a team and project-based learning and scholarship program for high school students that engages small teams in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics in order to solve global problems.

“What is going on with Cathy and Javier today? I thought they would LIKE working together.” “Bill’s head has been down for most of the second half of the class, but I know he loves this class.”

Good teachers constantly negotiate a balance between the tools at their disposal, their pedagogy, and their knowledge of content in ever-changing contexts – the intersecting systems of their classrooms, their school, and the family and community lives of their increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse students.

“Oh great, the announcement system has just cracked a garbled message, interrupting my wrap-up for the lesson.” “I need to call Yolanda’s mom in 15 minutes, but first I need to drop off my attendance form.”

A major challenge is how to juggle priorities while keeping a focus on student learning, given a particular mix of students (with regard to learning histories, cultures, preferences, abilities, and interaction patterns) and your comfort zone as a designer of learning experiences. Should you change tasks if everyone looks puzzled? Should you go talk to someone at the back of the room and leave the students in the front alone for a few minutes? If students are quiet does that mean they are learning, or do they learn more when they are talking? If everyone learns in different ways, then how can you teach to each of them in the best way?

Figure 1

Figure 1. simSchool classroom shows a variety of behaviors and learning characteristics.

If new teachers do not quickly develop resilience in the face of these complexities, they may join the over 30% who leave the profession within the first three years (NCTAF, 2009). That is where simSchool can help. SimSchool simulates a living classroom culture to challenge teachers to design and arrange engaging tasks that help all students learn (Figure 1). The simulated classroom can be made of students created by the user or it can be populated with some of its more than one and a half million students, each of whom has a unique learning profile.

Using simSchool in a carefully planned professional learning environment, like those supported by the Equity Alliance at ASU and LeadScape, promotes the development of pedagogical expertise by re-creating the complexities of classroom decisions based on a mathematical model of how people learn and what teachers do when teaching. The model includes research-based psychological, sensory and cognitive domains similar to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, Mesia, & Krathwohl, 1964). In simSchool these domains are defined with underlying subcategory factors that reflect modern psychological, cognitive science and neuroscience concepts. For example, the Five-Factor Model of psychology (McCrae & Costa, 1996) serves as the foundation of the student’s emotional intelligence spectrum, which includes characteristics such as: extroversion, agreeableness, persistence, emotional stability, and openness to learning. A simplified sensory model with auditory, visual and kinesthetic perceptual preferences comprises the physical domain. A third domain represents general academic performance (Gibson, 2008).

As you try out your instructional plan, you watch how students react. You can pause to reflect on what is going on and make adjustments by either changing the task or talking to the students, either one at a time, or altogether. Did your adjustment improve their learning? You can check and keep teaching, but as you do so, other students might be drifting off, confused about how to start, or are ready to move on to another task. If you talk, does it help? What kind of talk helps in which kinds of situations, for what kinds of students?

At the end of your session, you can look back over all the interactions and recreate what you were thinking, what you tried and how the students reacted.

Figure 2. Graphic displays show how the teaching practice evolved.

In Figure 2, Yael had nothing to do for 4 minutes (time is shown in 30 second increments); the teacher made a friendly comment about 2 minutes into the lesson (vertical line marked “friendly”), which made Yael feel very good and prepared him for groupwork. Yael was then asked to “do a team worksheet”; the academic requirement (or “cognitive load”) was above Yael’s starting point (in dark blue) which allowed for growth. The friendly preparation of the teacher made it easy for Yael to begin to adapt to the social requirement of the task. Quite a lot of activity for just 8 minutes of class time! I wonder, what was happening to the other students during this time?

Working in pairs with a peer and with expert teachers helping mentor and guide your thinking, you can learn a lot by experimenting with simSchool. Research at the University of North Texas has shown that both general and special education professionals develop self-efficacy as professionals and do so more quickly when they are supported by more trials and detailed feedback from simSchool. It’s exciting to think that game-like learning (e.g. exploratory and experimental, challenging, low risk, and immediate feedback) can help deepen an understanding of the interaction of learning environments with learner characteristics and their impact on classroom behaviors and student outcomes.


Bloom, B., Mesia, B., & Krathwohl, D. (1964). Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: David McKay.

Gibson, D. (2008). Modeling classroom cognition and teaching behaviors with COVE. In D. Gibson & Y. Baek (Eds.), Digital simulations for improving education. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

McCrae, R., & Costa, P. (1996). Toward a new generation of personality theories: Theoretical contexts for the five-factor model. In J. S. Wiggins (Ed.), The five-factor model of personality: Theoretical perspectives (pp. 51-87). New York: Guilford.

NCTAF. (2009). Who will teach? Experience matters.   Retrieved January, 2010, from http://www.nctaf.org/NCTAFWhoWillTeach.pdf.pdf

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8 Responses to “Learning about Teaching with simSchool by David Gibson”

  1. David Gibson on 6/30/10 9:27 PM US/Eastern

    My friends and colleagues at the University of NORTH Texas welcome you to read more about the “simMentoring” projects of their center (http://www.iittl.unt.edu/IITTL/fipse/simMentoring_web/index.html) and invite you to contact them to join in the research and experimentation.

  2. Mary Sue Hamilton on 7/12/10 12:16 PM US/Eastern

    This concept of the simSchool is quite interesting. How can this product be widely used for teacher preparation and professional learning?

  3. Jennifer Huber on 7/12/10 5:55 PM US/Eastern

    I am very interested in learning more about the use of simSchool in teacher learning. Are there schools of education, other than Univ. of North Texas, that are utilizing this technology?

  4. David Gibson on 7/12/10 9:59 PM US/Eastern

    In reply to Mary Sue, the research team is looking into a few avenues for the future. We are writing a “leadership” proposal that would use simSchool to allow future administrators get a taste of the classroom. We have made a long list of improvements to the application to make it easier to see the results of a simulation session, to lower the barrier for those who do now have a background in some of the theories. We are mulling over whether and how to make it a “multi-player” game – for example by allowing a mentor and a candidate to work within the same classroom; also to have more than one classroom in a hallway of a “simSchool” where kids can be shared from room to room. We believe that we’re still in an early phase of development (not full validation research yet), so we’ll hold off recommending it for wide-spread use until a bit more research is done and the findings look promising. (We think they will be there, and if so, then it will scale easily).

  5. David Gibson on 7/12/10 10:05 PM US/Eastern

    In reply to Jennifer, there is a doctoral research project going on in New Jersey. There is a FIPSE proposal being written in Puerto Rico, which if funded will place it there (and get a Spanish translation). It was studied and used in South Korea (and translated) but the researchers were technology folks who wanted to understand the underlying technology; so there is a wide open field of research and implementation to develop. I plan to include simSchool in the research and work at ASU, if the chance arises. I encourage collaborators to get in touch if you are interested!

  6. Debra Tigmo on 9/26/11 11:47 AM US/Eastern

    What an innovative way to mentor students or new teachers. After reading your blog, I visited the simSchool webpage. I like the idea of creating a virtual classroom with a variety of student profiles to test instructional strategies. The website refers to the program as a “flight simulator” for teachers. Recently, I experienced flying in an F-18 simulator, so I appreciated the flying analogy. Whether you are flying or teaching, the more opportunities you have to experience what it is like beforehand, the better prepared you will be for the real opportunity. Pilots have simulators, lawyers have mock trials, and student teachers have student teaching and simSchool. According to the NCTAF survey you referenced, there is a 30% drop-out rate for new teachers. SimSchool sounds like an excellent chance to practice what it would be like to walk into a classroom of unruly students, and have experienced teachers critique the way a student teacher/new teacher defused an escalating classroom situation. The NCTAF survey promotes collaboration between veteran teachers and new teachers. Another blogger on LeadScape, Dr. Murawski, promotes co-teaching as an effective teaching method for teachers and students. Is there a way to program the co-teacher model into simSchool? The virtual classroom allows co-teachers an opportunity to practice their ability to collaborate. Some teachers are resistant to co-teaching. SimSchool provides an experience for those teachers to see how it works and its effectiveness in a non-threatening environment.

  7. David GIbson on 9/26/11 5:05 PM US/Eastern

    We do plan to build in more ways to experience the sim classroom. UNT researchers discovered almost immediately that pairs of players learned more and better than did individuals…so a form of co-teaching takes if two people sit with the simulator and try to get something done. In the new features that were just released on Sept 16 (see http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs080/1103664399211/archive/1107843294315.html) , we now have an open library of sims, modules, students and tasks. We also have a growing global network of colleges using it – so join the fun!

  8. Paul Gowan on 11/10/15 6:58 PM US/Eastern

    The article is good.
    I would be more interested in Sims like Buckminster Fuller’s World Game that explore possible future teaching scenarios.
    I would like to see the “Engines for Education’ hyper book dramatized by Simschool.
    I would like to see a scenario of David Thornburg’s evolving classroom ideas and a School in the Cloud facility.

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