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Using simulations to motivate students

One way to make concepts meaningful for your students might be to introduce topics using simulations. Simulations can help students see things from a different perspective or allow them to feel connected to the topic. For example, when introducing broad concepts such as the Red Scare or Imperialism this technique works really well.

With a little imagination, you and and your colleagues can create your own simulations. Think about how the topic studied could relate to your students’ lives. How can you make the main concepts clear to them by using things that are important in their lives? Be creative and have fun! Reviewing the following examples might help to give you some ideas:

Example #1: Red Scare and McCarthyism simulation

In this simulation, the teacher and class (Joseph McCarthy and the United States) accuse several students of being affiliated with the rival school (being Communist):


1. The teacher passes out strips of paper that indicate what role the students will play in the activity.

2. Examples of role instructions include:


You have been accused of being a Knight (replace with your rival school). You will need to testify in class today.

You strongly fear Knights. Stand up and accuse one of the Knights of something. (Example: "I saw you talking with the Knights' basketball coach last night," or "Aren’t you friends with some girls from the rival school?")

You are only slightly worried about the Knights taking over the conference so you sit back and watch.

You think all of this is a joke and no way will the Knights ever dominate the conference, so you stand up for the accused. (Example: "Who cares if ________ was a Knight, the Knights have no chance of taking us over.")

You are a powerful member of the community. Stand up and accuse someone in the crowd of being a Knight at heart.

You believe we have a real problem here. Propose a punishment for the students who have been disloyal. (Example: "These students should face jail time for their participation with the Knights." "These students should be suspended for their cooperation with the Knights. What will happen to us if they help the Knights to dominate the conference?")


3. Ask the accused students to go to the front of the classroom and defend themselves. Let the students fall into their roles.

4. You might give each of the students one final chance to defend themselves. Make sure that other students in the audience are getting “accused” too. Maybe students get suspicious of students who are wearing the other school’s colors or someone who lives in the other school’s district.

5. Once the simulation has taken its course, be sure to have a follow-up discussion. What was unfair about this "trial"? What seemed unusual about the circumstances? Who tended to be targeted as a Knight?

6. Have students write a summary of the activity or have them create a Venn diagram that depicts the similarities between the class activity and the real Red Scare of the 1950s. The follow-up discussion allows the students to make connections with the real event (in this case the Red Scare).


Example #2: Imperialism simulation

In this simulation, the teacher describes new school rules that are ready to be put into place. The rule changes mean that the freshmen (smaller, weaker territory) will be losing a lot of their autonomy to the seniors (imperialistic, stronger country).

1. The teacher reads "a memo from the principal” that describes all of the rule changes. This memo should include things that are specific to your school. For example, the memo might include things like this:

Proposed rule change

Relationship to the principles of imperialism

a. The freshmen will be without their lockers because the seniors want them. The freshmen lockers are much closer to key areas such as the gym and cafeteria, and the seniors would like better access to those areas.

The smaller, weaker territories often are located in a strategic area (sometimes offering prime locations for military bases).

b. Each freshman will be assigned to a senior “buddy.” They will walk their senior to class and begin learning how to act. The seniors have a much better sense of how to behave and they must teach the freshmen.

The stronger country is much more “civilized” than the weaker territories so it is their duty to show them how to behave, speak and act

c. The freshmen must be willing and able to give the seniors any materials they might need at any time. If a senior does not have a pencil or paper for class, they can take the materials that their freshman buddy has.

The weaker nations often have resources or materials that the stronger nation commands access to.

d. The freshmen will be responsible for holding several fundraisers this year with all proceeds going to the senior class. The seniors have used all of their money and have a lot of events to pay for this year.

The weaker territories usually end up offering some financial advantage to the stronger country. In fact, sometimes the stronger nation takes over economic decision-making for the weaker territory.

e. Since the seniors do not think the freshmen are experienced enough to lead their own class, the seniors will preside as class officers to the freshmen class.

A stronger country often determines the political structure of the weaker territory that they are taking over.

2. After you have read the memo to the class, allow the students to voice their concerns or thoughts pertaining to the memo. This often leads to great discussions and sometimes leads to ideas about a revolt against the senior class.

3. Assigning a writing activity after this simulation allows students to reflect on the situation and about imperialism in general. Why might bigger, stronger nations look to be imperialistic and take over smaller, weaker territories? What problems might countries face as they become more imperialistic? What are the advantages and disadvantages for the strong and the weak?