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How do we learn from Simulations (Experience?)

August 30, 2015

If Experience is the Best Teacher and Simulations approximate Experience, then it follows that Simulations can provide a great opportunity for learning in the context of Leadership PD.


So how does this work?


When approaching the challenge of Learning, it is important to first acknowledge that there is distinction between learning from ‘teaching’ and learning from ‘experience’. Once we have that as a baseline of understanding then we can examine how or where learning happens in ‘experience’. In the context of this posting, I am going to focus on how learning can happen in a manufactured experience or in a simulation. A key distinction of ‘learning from experience’ is that any experience can be valuable, good-bad-or indifferent. This is because, often, the experience helps us to improve our judgment in the future.


“Good judgment is the result of experience. Good Experience is often the result of bad judgment (Chad Checketts).” Therefore, when it comes to simulation, or manufactured experience, the exercise needs to be compelling and in context so that the student can process it as a realistic experience, but beyond that, there is flexibility.


So where can/does the learning take place? When it comes to designing experience, there are a number of learning levers that I have found in my almost 30 years of utilizing simulations that we can leverage to make the experience both meaningful and developmental. It is important to note that the learning can come with any one of these items as well as in combinations, therein lies the power of simulation that it provides numerous opportunities for developmental engagement and the learning flows from there.


Once the students are engaged the opportunity for learning grows dramatically and increases their interest in further learning. The learning levers include:


1. The Narrative – This is the story, or the case if you will. Because of the power and potential of storytelling, just reading the narrative can provide insights and opportunities for development.


2. The Media (when appropriate) – Given the engagement power of storytelling with simulations, sometimes, even text driven simulations can be highly effective. Text can even be a first choice in designing simulations because they provide an opportunity to present issues without the distraction that often comes with Media. Furthermore, text provides both flexibility and scalability because it can keep cost down, increase speed of production and insure that the application can be easily updated overtime. It also keeps the size of the files down.


However, when it comes to contextual and interpersonal issues, often there are things we need to see or benefit from hearing and so use of Media is another potential ‘Lever’ that can be used. Capturing non-verbal communications and cues can be valuable both in what they convey and allow participants to practice noticing, depending on the design. 


3. The Choice Options - Given that the key benefit of learning from experience is improved Judgment, making a decision is an important part of the experience equation. Approaching a decision point, a fork in the road, prompts critical thinking and an opportunity to exercise judgment. This is part of the ‘art form’ of sim development in that how we articulate choice can be both evocative but also provocative. After all, if an option prompts a knee-jerk or visceral response, it is an opportunity to reflect on why that was a reaction and whether the response is sourced in rational thinking or not.


By engaging in critical thinking, by creating muscle memory around exercising judgment before action, is a valuable learning opportunity irrespective of what comes next, let alone have the opportunity for the Experiencing of Consequences.  


4. Social Learning I – If the simulations are being delivered in a group setting of some sort, the opportunity for group discussions around the narrative or around the decision choices provides an additional opportunity for organic and collaborative peer-sourced learning. Realistic and contextual scenarios can evoke discussion around an individual’s experience that they find relevant.


In sharing their experiences and insights provides a vehicle for significant and valuable social learning that increases the value of the sim approach significantly. Even difficult or complicated issues can get raised in this way for discussion in a non-confrontational way, where they can be explored and then, if facilitated properly, directed towards courses of action.


5. Consequences of Decisions – One of the key issues with mindlessness and decision making is that we ignore, or don’t think about the consequences of our actions. By experiencing consequences, both positive and negative, we gain insight into the issues at play that made the decision one that actually required judgment. Consequences, like the Choice Options can be realistic, but also provocative. If a student is engaged in the flow of the narrative/story they might be expecting a certain pathway to play out. In designing the simulation, we can reinforce where appropriate but also provoke when necessary. After all, in real life, just because we expect something to happen does not mean it will. Furthermore, there are often situations in which the right decision does not result in the expected consequence due to outside stimuli outside of our control and yet, we still need to deal with those consequences.


This is a key opportunity for us to help our students to build Resilience and to continue to use good judgment even with the situation does not go as planned. The Social Learning opportunity continues with the Consequences as the experience gets discussed and processed through the filters of the team’s experiences and perspectives.


6. Tradeoff Report - When it comes to these context-driven issues the challenge is not to just make people more comfortable with making decisions but to be comfortable making the tough decisions and solving the tough problems. It is when there is no good answer or when the best answer also has significant negatives associated with it where the real challenge is. That's where we need to create a situation where the focus is not on making our students feel ‘good’, because that will not always happen.


We want to provide students and practitioners with the practice of making those difficult decisions where they know that even if they make the optimal choice, parts of the outcome will be bad. Simulation provides a context for this kind of meaningful learning-by-doing and the Tradeoff Report provides:

     - the insight and understanding of the issues at play 

     - the tradeoffs/cause & effect that manifest in the scenario and/or broader context

     - insight into the stakeholders, beyond the obvious ones, that are affected by the context

     - demonstrates the impact of time and what can make the students successful in the future 


7. Narrative Feedback - Alternatively or in addition to consequences, the designer can write feedback on the choice that was made (either delivered immediately or delayed) that explains the issues and why the choice selected was good or bad. The feedback can be as expansive or limited as fits the overall learning objective of the exercise, and can also be used to link to other elements (e-learning, synchronous module, and so on) within the learning program.


The feedback explains the learning objectives that were being addressed by that particular scenario. It is then followed by a description of the effects of the decision that was made.


8. Social Learning II – Small Group Debrief – When delivering the simulation in small groups, once they finish playing it, they have the opportunity to collaboratively reflect upon the experience they had and the decisions they made as they review the detailed feedback in the form of the final Tradeoff Report and Feedback Report.


This is an opportunity to process the experience and further benefit from the shared experience and having the opportunity to share past, related real-life experiences. 


9. Social Learning III – Large Group Debrief – However the simulations are delivered, bringing the group together to reflect upon the shared experience and how it applies to their own situations is key to cementing the learning into the participants’ Experience Portfolios. In this context, the leader, who may be an outside facilitator or an administrator can use the experience to guide the team in meaningful discussion and planning relative to activities going on in the building or district and lay the groundwork for additional experiences and interventions in the future.

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