Constructing International Relations Simulations: Examining the Pedagogy of IR Simulations Through a Constructivist Learning Theory Lens

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of York]On: 21 April 2013, At: 14:02Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Journal of Political Science EducationPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/upse20

    Constructing International RelationsSimulations: Examining the Pedagogy ofIR Simulations Through a ConstructivistLearning Theory LensVictor Asal a & Jayson Kratoville aa University at Albany, SUNYVersion of record first published: 12 Apr 2013.

    To cite this article: Victor Asal & Jayson Kratoville (2013): Constructing International RelationsSimulations: Examining the Pedagogy of IR Simulations Through a Constructivist Learning Theory Lens,Journal of Political Science Education, 9:2, 132-143

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2013.770982

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  • Constructing International Relations Simulations:Examining the Pedagogy of IR Simulations Through

    a Constructivist Learning Theory Lens

    VICTOR ASALJAYSON KRATOVILLE

    University at Albany, SUNY

    Simulations are being used more and more in political science generally and ininternational relations specifically. While there is a growing body of literaturedescribing different simulations and a small amount of literature that empiricallytests the impact of simulations, scholars have written very little linking the pedagogictheory behind simulations to the strategies and tactics used to develop and deliverthem. Drawing insights from the existing pedagogic literature, material in IR simu-lation articles, and the small amount of existing literature on this subject, we seek toidentify patterns in how instructors use simulations to facilitate student learning.Using a constructivist learning theory approach, this article reviews existing theorieson the most effective ways to develop and use simulations. Our review of current IRsimulation articles indicates that effective simulations are designed to strike a bal-ance between students perceptions on what happened and existing theory as towhy it happened. Students are then able to use these simulations as a method tojudge the theories and to apply lessons from the simulations to current events.

    Keywords games, international relations, pedagogy, simulations

    Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mereintellectual play.

    Immanuel Kant

    Introduction

    The political science community has generally begun to accept that simulations, ifused correctly, can be effective tools in the classroom. In implementing simulationsmore broadly across the discipline, the conditional phrase, if used correctly, high-lights the need for a standardized, empirically tested baseline. Many studies that sup-port or question the benefits of using simulations to teach international relations(IR) are based on specific simulations that were developed with different standards;therefore, the results of any empirical test are not reliable when talking aboutsimulations in a broad sense. The IR community needs to define its collectiveunderstanding for the best ways to develop and implement simulations before wecan have an empirical discussion about simulations usefulness.

    Address correspondence to Victor Asal, Department of Political Science, University atAlbany, Milne Hall, 135 Western Ave., Albany, NY 12222. E-mail: vasal@albany.edu

    Journal of Political Science Education, 9:132143, 2013Copyright # 2013 Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 1551-2169 print=1551-2177 onlineDOI: 10.1080/15512169.2013.770982

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  • We attempt a first cut at such an effort by using constructivist learning theoryand problem-based learning to frame what IR scholars have already written aboutthe effective use of simulations. These theories have been developed through anunderstanding for how students learn, focusing on the connection between theoryand practical application. In a previous study, Brown and King examine them usingthe University of Marylands International Communication and Negotiation Simu-lations (ICONS), concluding that they work together to facilitate learning andenhance motivation in students (2000, 252). In applying these constructs morebroadly across the discipline, we endeavor to provide context to IR instructorsobserved success in using simulations as pedagogical tools.

    We begin with a background discussion on the development of constructivistlearning theory and problem-based learning and how they can be applied in theclassroom. Specifically, we focus on goal setting and instructor facilitation as keysto successful implementation. We then bring together and summarize politicalscience scholars perspectives on effectively developing and using simulations inthe classroom, using the theories as a guide.

    Blending Theory and Practice: Constructivist Learning Theory andProblem-Based Learning

    Pedagogically, the use of simulations is based on constructivist learning theory,which, put simply, predicts that by constructing external representations ofscientific phenomena, learners are building an internal mental model of the phe-nomena (Richardson 2003; Soloway et al, 1996, 3). These mental models are defined,in large part, by experiences. If the established theory supports a students view on asituation to which it can be applied, the theory will resonate with that student. On theother hand, if the theory does not jibe with the students perception of real-life situa-tions, it will be difficult for the student to learn the theory (Brown and King 2000;Soloway et al. 1996). As we will explain in further detail later, well-designed simula-tions provide a believable, reality-based situation to which students can apply theory,thereby using theory to construct a mental model. This section briefly summarizes thedevelopment of constructivist learning theory and problem-based learning models aswell as basic guidelines for using the two effectively.

    Origins

    In the educational psychology community, there is a great deal of theoretical debateabout how individuals learn (Packer and Goicoechea 2000; Prawat and Floden1994). Characterizing this debate is outside the scope of this article; instead, weintend to focus on the success of simulations when applied to political science andinternational relations and the role of constructivist learning theory in that success.

    The roots of constructivist learning theory can be traced back to ImmanuelKants integrative answer to the debate between empirical realism and transcen-dental idealism (Packer and Goicoechea 2000). Applied to learning, the formertheory essentially maintains that characterizations of individual objects or situationsare established and absolute. The latter theory seems to exist in contrast, focusing onthe role of human perception in defining an object or situation. Kant explains thatindividuals learn best when established theory and personal experience reinforceeach other1 (Allison 2004; Walsh 1903). Put into context, this means that students

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  • will best understand the ways two countries will interact in a negotiation, forexample, when they combine theoretical knowledge of negotiation and the historybetween the two countries with experience negotiating as the two parties.

    As constructivist theory has developed, different branches have grown. AsRichardson explains, however, these branches are all based on the same foundation:the existence of mental models. The two main poles of constructivist theory aresocial constructivism, or the belief that knowledge frames are influenced by socialfactors such as politics, relative power, economics, etc., and psychological construc-tivism, or the idea that an individuals own experience and experiences with otherindividuals influence how he or she frames information. While constructivist theor-ists have not been able to establish which of these two branches better explainshuman cognition, constructivist learning theory is derived mostly from the latterapproach (Richardson 2003).

    Connecting Learning to Goals

    It is important to note that this theory focuses on how students learn, not howinstructors should teach. Instead, instructors can use the theorys insight into humanunderstanding to build classroom activities that help students better relate to the the-ories addressed in the course (e.g., simulations) (Richardson 2003). One of the mosteffective ways to do this is through learning objectives. Humans, by nature, areinformation seeking and goal following. Constructivist learning theory and the fra-meworks that come out of it seek to take advantage of this attribute (Bannan-Ritland, Dabbagh, and Murphy 2002). According to Honebein, designers oflearning environments live by seven pedagogical goals:

    1. Provide experience with the knowledge construction process. The role of theteacher is to facilitate this process.

    2. Provide experience in and appreciation for multiple perspectives.3. Embed learning in realistic and relevant contexts.4. Encourage ownership [of] and voice in the learning process.5. Embed learning in social experience.6. Encourage the use of multiple modes of representation.7. Encourage self-awareness of the knowledge construction project (1996, 11).

    These goals create a learning environment that, in practice, is based on a combi-nation of instructors providing theory-based expertise and students applying thatexpertise in a practical way.

    A specific way to use goal setting to develop a constructivist learning environ-ment is through problem-based learning, which was developed around the idea thatmost students will better learn information if they need it; need arises as they try tosolve problems. Such problems locate information in specific contexts and promptstudents to immediately use the knowledge they discover, to apply the information,and to explain it to others (Burch 2000, 32). In other words, problem-based learn-ing allows students to understand why the concepts and strategies they are learningare important in a real-world context. It also creates an interactive environmentwhere students can share and build their knowledge cooperatively.

    In evaluating ICONS, an IR simulation developed by theUniversity ofMaryland,Brown and King connect problem-based learning with meaning-making concepts

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  • from constructivist learning theory. In doing so, they outline the following criteriafor using problem-based learning in an IR context:

    . Anchor all learning activities to a larger task or problem.

    . Support the learner in developing ownership and control of the problem.

    . Design an authentic task to reflect the complexity of the environment.

    . Giver ownership of the solution process to the learner.

    . Design the learning to challenge, as well as support the learners thinking.

    . Encourage testing alternate views.

    . Ensure reflection on both content and the learning process (Brown and King2000, 248249).

    The Role of the Instructor

    While constructivist learning theory is student centric, instructors serve an importantrole as facilitators of academic discourse. They act as a conduit between theory andpractice, providing guidance based on their knowledge of the subject matter(Richardson 2003). This is critical because, as the outcome of Raymonds student-run simulation suggests, students may not automatically make the connectionbetween the activity and the theory the instructor is trying to convey (2010). Theinstructor can also respond to perceived disconnects between the theory and theactivity. If these inconsistencies go unaddressed, students may reject the theoryoutright.

    The literature on problem-based learning provides more direct responsibilitiesfor the instructor. For these types of activities, instructors should yield direct controlover what is going on in the class and instead focus on facilitating the class throughteachable moments that arise during the course of the activity (Burch 2000). Thisprovides further weight to Richardsons claim above that instructors need to have adeep understanding of the subject matter, as they need to be able to recognize thesemoments in order to capitalize on them. Teachers must also strike a balance betweenallowing the game play to run its course and providing guidance through questionsthat bring the activity back into focus (Burch 2000).

    In further defining the instructors role in problem-based learning, Burch quotesWilkerson (1995, 1996) in outlining several criteria:

    . balance directions to students with assistance to them;

    . contribute knowledge and experience to students research of a problem;

    . stimulate a critical evaluation of ideas;

    . translate knowledge and experience into terms readily understood by students;

    . facilitate rather than deliver, observe rather than act, coach rather than command,offer constructive feedback rather than direction, challenge to excel rather thancriticize shortcomings; and

    . create a pleasant learning environment by (a) encouraging diverse points of view,styles, preparation, and conclusions, (b) encouraging participation from allstudents, and (c) helping lower tensions in a combative group. (2000, 38)

    Burch (2000, 38) adds the caveat that instructors may take a more directive role ifthe situation or the instructors preferences warrant it.

    In this section, we explained constructivist learning theory and problem-basedlearning background and summarized some basic guidelines from the literatureon implementing the two theories in a classroom setting. The theories are learner

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  • centric, focusing on how instructors can facilitate understanding rather than directlyprovide it. They also highlight the importance of connecting theory to practicalapplications that allow for stu...

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