Using Simulations for Social Studies Essay

My senior year of college, a professor opened my eyes to the power of a well-run simulations for social studies. He created these incredibly fun, yet realistic recreations of Renaissance Italy and Feudal Europe that made class fly by, left me wanting more, and beat the heck out of watching slide shows of his trips to Europe. Most importantly, the role-play drilled the key concepts he wanted to teach into my head.

When I got my first job, I started using his simulations for social studies in my middle school classroom, adapted down to my grade level. My students loved them, even the students who didn’t always love social studies. Students would talk about the simulation long after class finished. Even today, years later, they mention the simulations when they see me.

Thinking I had found a good thing, I purchased some other simulations from the ubiquitous teacher catalogs we all get mailed, including one about the Civil War. They didn’t have the same interactive and dynamic role-playing like the ones my professor had made. Honestly, they bored me and my students.

So a few years back, I figured I’d try my hand at making a simulation of my own. I came up with the Trans-Saharan trade game I used to teach the mechanics and causes of the Trans-Saharan salt-gold trade, as well as reinforce geography, Islam, and economics. To my surprise, it worked! We turned my classroom into North Africa, divided the students into different kingdoms and Berber clans, and they happily spent a few days crisscrossing the Sahara in caravans, trading salt for gold.

More recently, I just finished and taught for the first time my Pax Mongolia and Silk Road simulation. Students played one for the four Mongol kingdoms that existed in 1294, traded via the Silk Road, warred, schemed, dealt with the plague and did all the other things the Mongols did. I tried to add some of my favorite elements from board games I enjoy, like Dead of Night, so students sometimes had to resolve real historical events that occurred choosing one of two tough choices. It was a great experience, students loved it, and overall it reinforced my belief that simulations are a great instructional strategy.

If you’re not convinced yet, here are 6 reasons why you should use simulations for social studies.

1.) Simulations for social studies are fun.
Does that matter you ask? Absolutely. The Social Studies classroom should be the MOST fun classroom. I want students to eagerly anticipate coming to my room. Students love getting a break from the textbook, and the freedom to move during class instead of being stuck in a seat.

2.) Simulations for social studies are collaborative.
Students have to work cooperatively to achieve mutual goals in a simulation. Making a deal with India to fend off the Golden Horde is great real life experience.

3.) Simulations for social studies are interactive. 
It’s one thing to read about feudalism and the seriousness of feudal oaths. It’s another to actually be a noble in medieval France and have to carefully pick who you pledge your loyalty too, and carefully consider who you will accept oaths of loyalty from.

4.) Simulations for social studies integrate all kinds of content.
Social studies is the perfect content area for simulations. You can easily incorporate geography, trade routes, governmental structures, technology, world events and more into simulations.

  • The Sahara is big and vast and treacherous to cross; Only Berbers can cross it.
  • The Mongols created a vast free trade zone through Asia; “Oh no!” The Black Death is spreading.
  • Feudal oaths involved exchanging fiefs in return for military service in a really, really weird ceremony; we recreate the ceremony and exchange fiefs and oaths of loyalty.

5.) Simulations for social studies naturally differentiate, engaging all students.
EAL or TAG you can find an important role for everyone in the class. Some students may be merchants on the Silk Road. Some may be diplomats for the Italian city-states. Some may be Khans and Princes and Dukes.
I received the best evaluation of my life recently when my supervisor popped in unexpected during the Silk Road simulation. It was beautiful, organized chaos. Kids were everywhere trading, negotiating, trying to build things, and plotting attacks.

6.) Simulations for social studies teach!
With proper pre-teaching and the right simulation, you’ll find your students learn so much more from a simulation than almost any other type of lesson. They live the content. They get to experience what you’ve been talking about hands-on. And best of all they’ll be talking about your class at lunch, at their lockers, and at home.

High School
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