Simulation: Turning abstract knowledge into intuition we can use

It’s practically a truism that all you really need to know you learned in kindergarten. Kindergarten is where we baked little plastic foods in a toy oven. We built houses out of cardboard bricks. We planted seeds in soil, fed worms to baby turtles, made hamburgers out of clay. Kindergarten is where we experienced the wider adult world in microcosm and where we brought our curiosity to bear on everything we did. How sad we would have been to know that the way we learned in kindergarten would end when we commenced to first grade.

What Friedrich Fröbel understood about children when he coined the word “kindergarten” in 1840 was that educating children best occurs in a simulated adult world. While some kindergartens have veered away from the simulated world of play and make-believe toward a more academic environment, the principle remains more or less unchallenged: Kindergarten engages mind and spirit by asking children to look and do in a setting that resembles their real world.

We can only guess how much more we would learn in grades 1-12 if they were more like our first classroom. The learning patterns students are expected to acquire from the textbooks and tests they cope with in school are radically disconnected from that wider adult world that kindergarten was preparing us to negotiate.

We do find vestiges of that kindergarten educational model in many vocational programs. That’s because some educators understand that a simulated environment offers an effective way to learn skills we ultimately apply to real-world activities.

Aviation, for example, offers simulated training that mirrors many of the foreseen and unseen challenges an airplane pilot will face during actual flight. While nothing short of flying experience would have prepared pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger for the bird strike that forced him to ditch his Airbus A320 in the Hudson River, commercial pilots rely on flight simulation to familiarize them with the turbulence, inclement weather and loss of control incidents they will encounter throughout their career. Indeed, pilots know that even simulation inside a real airplane enhances their situational awareness: Because plane design actually prevents them from feeling the sensation of falling, pilots need a simulated reminder to alert them to the real event.

Thanks to online games and other technologies, simulation is making a comeback in education. The sooner the better.

Let’s look at Sim City, the city-building video game that asks a player to develop a city, ensure the happiness of its citizens and manage a budget. Every type of construction, including residential, industrial and commercial structures, as well as infrastructure systems — all of these are built based on hourly capital costs and taxes. As the player builds out her city, she has to weigh the effect of her financial and social decisions on the entire system. What players gain is an intuitive sense of all the related factors involved in sustaining the life of a city.

A simulated learning environment such as Sim City would in no way replace a textbook city planning curriculum. Students would still study “Understanding the Urban Environment,” “Introduction to Geographic Information Systems,” etc., and they would still read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But after spending twenty hours with Sim City or a comparable program, their knowledge of city planning issues would be much more than theoretical. Students would become intuitively acquainted with the cascading effects of an action.

Moreover, the rules and logic that underlie Sim City’s simulated learning environment would also be valuable to students studying law, government, philosophy and computer science.

McGraw Hill already has started down the 3-D simulation path with a set of practice suites. One of them — Practice Operations — lets students learn how to manage customer expectations, address supply chain issues and expand client relationships. Individual modules introduce students to a range of enterprise operations, from human resources to shipping. Like Sim City, MH Practice Operations gives students a 360-degree view of a business operation that includes everything from onboarding a new employee to sourcing raw materials in a developing country.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Our opportunity here is to create a curriculum that consists of diverse simulation tools and the more traditional tools like textbooks and knowledge assessments. We want to promote multidisciplinary thinking so that the materials geared to urban planning might also apply to, say, history and sociology. The goal is to make the classroom more responsive to the big problems in technology, healthcare, manufacturing and urban life we want this and future generations to take on.

What we’re saying is revolutionary. We are talking about mirroring the world we experience every day on our computer screens, tablets and smartphones in the classroom. That world — the Internet — doesn’t lend itself to artificial divisions any more than real life does. Even Yahoo!, which began by dividing the Internet up by category, sub-category and links, is struggling to carve out a more valued, more intuitive space in the high-tech industry. We have all learned that surprise and serendipity cannot be spoon-fed to us by way of a hierarchical Internet.

Here’s our premise:

Let’s capture people’s passion. Let’s make them curious, the way they were curious back in kindergarten. With curiosity comes the willingness to work, to ask questions, to click through to the next level. The-sky-is-the-limit nature of the Web makes people incredibly motivated to learn and explore. If we educators ignore the possibilities that Internet-based simulation gives us, we are ignoring a powerful tool that can turn abstract textbook knowledge into intuition. Simulation, along with textbooks, is going to help our students become thinkers and doers in the classroom and beyond.

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