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. 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