Last month’s blog looked at the difficult balancing act that has to be struck between knowledge and skills. It concluded that skills learned in one domain are not always transferable to another, making it important to have as realistic an environment in which to learn as possible.
The UK government believe, as set out in their skills for jobs white paper that by giving employers a central role in the design of technical courses it will ensure the education and training is directly linked to the skills needed in the world of work. Although this should result in a curriculum valued by employers, these skills won’t be learned unless they can be applied in a real-world environment. This is the reason the government promote apprenticeships and have built work experience into the new T levels.
But perhaps there is more that could be done, what if the transition between what is learned in the “classroom” and the real world was somehow smoother, almost as if it was the obvious next step.
Simulations, a type of rehearsal
One answer might be to use a simulation, an instructional scenario where the learner is placed in a world similar in some aspects to the real one. It is a representation of reality within which the student has to engage and interact. It’s controlled by the teacher who uses it to achieve a desired learning outcome.
Simulations are most effective when there is a need to explore relatively complex topics with many dimensions and factors. And because the student is placed in a situation of uncertainty, they are forced to navigate confusion, consider different possibilities, problem solve, think critically and in so doing develop those all-important higher-level skills so valued in the workplace. Despite there being good evidence, (Bogo et al, 2014, Cooper et al, 2012) as to the efficacy of simulations, in practice PowerPoints and chalk and talk are still all too common.
In terms of timing, simulations work best at the later stages of learning, after students have been taught theoretical concepts and the fundamental underpinning knowledge, effectively prior knowledge matters. The reason for this is our old friend “cognitive load” and the need not to overwhelm learners with too much information at any one time. (Kirschner et al., 2006).
Technology of course has a role to play, in particular Virtual Reality (VR) which although expensive has much to offer in areas where mistakes can be costly. This is perhaps most evident in the medical profession where VR can place students in realistic life and death situations but in an environment that is safe, controlled and allows for mistakes.
Case studies and games
Both case studies and games provide opportunities for a similar learning experience to simulations.
Case studies – are effectively real-world stories in which the student applies what they have been taught with the objective of solving a problem or offering alternative solutions. In the business world these are not new, for example Harvard Business School are celebrating their 100 years of teaching using the case study method this year.
Although it’s possible to study on your own using case studies, because of the absence of a single right answer it is beneficial to engage with other students, exchanging ideas, discussing different theoretical topics and listening to alternative answers. After which if you require a group consensus there is a need to prioritise and persuade others within the group, all of which are valuable skills.
Games – Wikipedia defines a game as a structured form of play, usually undertaken for entertainment or fun, and sometimes used as an educational tool. Most games have the same components, rules, an objective, challenge and competition. As with case studies if used for teaching they can allow the student to explore and test themselves with different problems, many of which have alternative courses of action. Having a competitor adds another dimension, perhaps sometime they are rational which might make them predictable but on other occasions they are irrational and illogical.
“We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing!”
Just to give some idea as to the scale of gaming and its popularity, in 2020 the video gaming Industry was estimated to be worth $160 Billion and by 2025 this figure is set to increase to $270 Billion. Now of course these aren’t educational games but it does show how valuable they could become if educators could somehow tap into their magic. And if you’re not familiar with how these games might be used, take a look at this short video that showcases the new and upcoming management games of 2021.
Realistic environments are not enough
Simulations, case studies and games all provide the opportunity to place the learner in a realistic environment to help them develop valuable work-based skills, but there is a caveat. Research has shown that simply putting the learner into a realistic environment is not enough (Clark, 2019), unless the very same evidence-based learning theories that are used in the classroom are also applied, that is deliberate practice, spaced practice, interleaving etc.
Like any form of teaching, these training environments need to be carefully constructed with the desired learning outcomes clearly identified and placed up front when designing the simulation or game. Yes, they can be fun, yes, they can be engaging but they won’t help you develop the required skills unless the evidence-based practices are used.
Strictly take 2 – How are contestants on strictly prepared for their real-world task, they have a rehearsal (simulation) on the Friday and two dress rehearsals (simulations) on the Saturday morning just before the show goes out live on the evening.
A few skills you can learn from a simulation