of Graphic Computer Simulations
Presented at the 1994 National Convention of
the Association for Educational Communications and Technology
John B. Black, Will Thalheimer, Hilary Wilder, Donna de Soto, Paul Picard
Several proposals have appeared recently arguing that the design of educational
systems should take a constructivist rather than an instructional approach (e.g.,
Bednar, Cunningham, Duffy, and Perry, 1991; Harel and Papert, 1991; Newman,
Griffin and Cole, 1989). However, while there are established, integrative frameworks
for guiding the design of instructional systems (e.g., Gagne, Briggs and Wager,
1992; Reigeluth, 1983; Romiszowski, 198i), there does not appear to be an integrated
framework for guiding the design of constructivist educational systems. We take
a first step in this direction by proposing six interrelated principles for
constructivist design. Versions of the individual principles have appeared in
a variety of places, but we have tried to formulate them in such a way that
they work together.
The six principles of constructive design that we propose and their sources
1. Set the stage but have the students generate the knowledge for themselves
as much as possible (Jacoby, 1978; Black, Carroll and McGuigan, 1987)
2. Anchor the knowledge in authentic situations and activities (Cognition
and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990)
3. Use the cognitive apprenticeship methods of modeling, scaffolding,
fading and coaching to convey how to construct knowledge in authentic situations
and activates (Collins, Brown and Newman, 1990)
4. Situate knowledge in multiple contexts to prepare for appropriate
transfer to new contexts (Gick and Holyoak, 1983)
5. Create cognitive flexibility by ensuring that all knowledge is seen
from multiple perspectives (Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson and Coulson, 1991)
6. Have the students collaborate in knowledge construction (Johnson
and Johnson, 1975)
We have created two graphic computer simulations for teaching high `and middle
school students about how business organizations and financial systems work
(these programs are currently being used in a number of New York City public
high schools). The two simulations are Parkside, which simulates managing
a hotel, and Guestwear, which simulates managing a clothing manufacturer
(formative work showed these topics to be motivating to the urban student population
we targeted). Both of these simulations are implemented in the Toolbook hypermedia
authoring environment running in Windows (3.0 or higher) on 386/486-based IBM
and equivalent computers. Here, we use the design and use of these simulations
to illustrate how the constructive design principles can .be applied.
For example, in Parkside we set the stage for student knowledge generation
(Principle 1) by providing an authentic hotel environment for the students
to interact with, while providing supplementary information that the students
can use to figure out how to accomplish goals and deal with problems that arise
in this setting. As they sit in their simulated office or wander around the
simulated hotel, various problems arise (through interacting with simulated
people, reading memos, answering phone calls, etc.) that they have to deal with.
They gather relevant information that they can use to figure out how to deal
with the problems through a variety of information sources that the simulation
provides (e.g., an icon-activated "Managers Guide" that whenever requested can
provide contextsensitive advice and feedback; an iconactivated quantitative
report that provide a variety of performance indices like occupancey rates,
income, customer satisfaction, newspaper articles, advice from staff at simulated
meetings that can be called at any time, etc.). This fairly-realistic graphic
display and the underlying functional relations (implemented as a set of complex
if-then rules and equations) provides the authentic situations and activites
that anchor the material covered (Principle 2). Thus the students deal
with business concepts like supply and demand or the importance of a trained
workforce not in the abstract, but in terms of concrete actions needed to make
their hotel work better
The students get started on the: Parkside simulation by having the teacher
"walkthrough" an initial portion of the simulation designed for this purpose
(module 0) verbalising how he or she is thinking through the situations and
problems encountered. Gradually the teacher fades out their contribution to
this "walkthrough" and the thinking is taken over by the students in a class
discussion. Then the students proceed through the rest of the simulation (modules
1-5) working in groups around computer workstations while the teacher walks
around the room providing help (scaffolding) and advice (coaching). Thus the
students are introduced to and guided through the simulation using a cognitive
apprenticeship approach (Principle 3). Cognitve apprenticeship is also
provided in the simulation program itself by the "Managers Guide" and other
information aides mentioned earlier that the students can activate whenever
The students work through the simulation in groups (generally four per group
in the current sites) around each computer so that they can collaborate on exploring
the simulated world and making decisions (Principle 6). Since the various
group members each have their own perspectives on the material, the discussion
in the groups and the later discussion between the groups provide multiple perspectives
(Principle 5). Multiple perspectives are also provided by design in the
comments and suggestions made .by the simulated people of the hotel world. Most
of the knowledge that we want the students to learn appears in more than one
context in the Parkside simulation, and later is covered again in the
Guestcvear simulation, which provides them in the very different context
of a simulated clothing manufacturer (Principle 4)
Problems with Initial Field Test
For an initial test of the effects of the Parkside and Guestu3ear
simulation programs, we placed them in two New York City public high schools
using computer laboratories donated for this purpose by IBM. These schools were
quite happy to accept this computer equipment and have us run our simulations
there as part of their Introduction to Occupations course, and the students
received the programs enthusiastically (e.g., attendance skyrocketed to virtually
100%), but the school adminstrations balked at moving beyond this superficial
The first sign of trouble was the school administrations refusal to give the
teachers release time to receive training in how to use the program and the
teachers were unwilling to devote their own tine to this. In fact, the depth
of teacher training needed soon became apparent: the teachers not only had no
experience using simulations (and not- much using computers in general), as
part of their teaching but, the mode of thought embodied in the simulation was
completely alien to them. In particular, the simulations were designed to inculcate
a mental model style of thinking (e.g, Gentner and Stevens, 1983; Mandinach,
1989) about business and financial systems. Thus we wanted the students to learn
that making decisions can affect a system of interacting entities in various
ways (e.g., increasing hotel room rates might increase initial revenue but depending
on circumstances might decrease occupancy rates and change the image of the
hotel, and so forth). The teachers never did grasp this style of thinking: they
kept insisting that there was no way they could teach using the simulation unless
we told them what the "right" answer is at each decision point. In the end,
our project team had to take over the parts of the class using the simulations.
Even worse, when the time came for us to administer a test (presenting a new
business case and having the students make decisions and explain their decisions),
the Principals of the schools refuse to let us test their students. It seems
at the point they had gotten what they wanted from the project (e.g., new computer
labs) and did not want to chance our revealing any weaknesses in their students.
Thus, we were not able to evaluate the effects of the simulations, but we were
left with an appreciation of the difficulties of accomplishing anything within
the current organizational structure of the New York City Public Schools.
A Quick-and-Dirty Field Test
Fortunately, we were able to use an Applied Economics class in a Connecticut
public high school to do a pilot pre-and post-test using our assessment instrument
with a class that used the Parkside simulation. The teacher of this class
is a graduate student in our department and thus has the requisite understanding
of computers, simulations and cognition to make meaningful use of the simulation.
The tests administered described new business cases (e.g., managing a pizza
parlor) and required the students to make a series of decisions about the business
(choose from a set of alternatives), acquire new vocabulary about business and
economics, and explain their reasoning in essay questions. the class was composed
of 16 students, and 12 of them completed both the pre-test and the post-test
(which were equivalent but with different content). These 12 students improved
form the pre-test to the post-test 10% on the multiple-choice decisions, 13%
on the vocabulary (being able to explain what the terms mean) and 22% on the
quality of reasoning expressed in their essay answers. Thus, while far from
definitive, these results suggest that the students are indeed learning from
the simulations and improving most in higher-level thinking (the essays). Particularly
interesting was the teachers report that 2 of the 12 students had been uninvolved
in the classroom part of the course, but became enthusiastic leaders during
the simulations. This suggests that simulations like Parkside may reach students
who do not relate to other methods of instruction
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