Simulations — Great For Prepping Students for Civic Action

To be honest, I was long skeptical of simulations that involve students in mock governmental debates or decision-making. They seemed like fun, but perhaps pale compared to students getting out to actually promote changes in their world. Then I participated in a workshop with Nisan Chavkin, former Director of the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago and presently a consultant specializing in civic engagement. First and foremost, it was FUN. And for helping students with civic action projects, I realized that it’s a tremendously useful tool. Will students decide to interview an expert on their issue, or meet with a government or school official? What better way to prepare than to simulate the scene so they can anticipate the challenges and strategies they will encounter. Might they be presenting their ideas to a neighborhood organization meeting, a school board, a legislative hearing, or another class? Ditto.

Here is Chavkin’s outline of simulation basics:


Role playing: Participants feel like, think like, and/or act like another individual and “act out” a particular problem or situation. Simulations: Participants react to a specific problem within a structured environment, for example, a moot court or legislative hearing. This hypothetical situation is designed to simulate an actual activity.


Although these two approaches have differing qualities, they are complementary and share the following common characteristics:  Build upon and further the development of imagination and critical thinking skills  Promote the expression of attitudes, opinions, and values  Place the student in a particular problem or situation that is often found in the real world  Foster student ability to develop and consider alternative courses of action  Require careful planning by the teacher and preparation of the participants  Require extensive debriefing and in-depth analysis of the experience by the teacher and by the students


In preparing to use these two strategies, here are some suggestions:

  1. Initial activities should be simple and become increasingly more complex if role playing is to be more than a drama exercise.
  2. Do not expect polished performances initially. Give students several opportunities to role play and to simulate historical and contemporary situations. Vary the type of activity.
  3. There are four essential components to these two strategies: a) preliminary planning and preparation by the teacher; b) preparation and training of the students; c) active class involvement’s in conducting activity; d) Debriefing with discussion and analysis.
  4. Because students may be uncomfortable or embarrassed, these activities should be presented in a relaxed, non-threatening atmosphere. Students should realize there may be more than one way to react. Practice will help students to feel more confident in these activities.


  • Give students adequate information to play roles convincingly. This will make it easier for the students and ensure they will enjoy the exercise as they learn.
  • Make situations and problems realistic, something they might confront often.
  • Allow students to “jump right in.” Don’t spend time on long introductions.
  • Allow students to do a role reversal to look at opposing viewpoints and prevent stereotyping students.
  • The following questions may be helpful during the debriefing: a) Was the problem solved? Why or why not? How was it solved? b) What alternative courses of action were available? c) Is this situation similar to anything that you have personally experienced?
From: Law-Related Education for Juvenile Justice Settings. (1993: LRE National Training and Dissemination Program (Grant #85-JS-CX-0004, OJJDP, U.S. Department of Justice)

Wondering what this looks like? To help the workshop group understand simulations, one simulation Chavkin led involved two groups of students testifying to a university provost (portrayed by me) for or against allowing a controversial politician to speak on campus. It was lively but perhaps more respectful than might have been the case in reality.

Now you give it a try and let us know how it helps students prepare for the real thing!