Using Simulations to Teach Perspective and Economics

By Nina Sethi, Social Studies Teacher

“Well in the real world not everyone can get everything and this kind of showed me that not all our decision making processes are fair.”

My co-teacher and I taught 5th grade (this school year, we are moving to 3rd) for the past three years. We teach government, Economics, literary essays, poetry, storytelling and so much more. One teaching tool we used repeatedly is simulations. Simulations are an amazing way to make learning active and tangible for students and expose them to different perspectives. They also are fascinating for us (teachers) to watch and experience and help us learn more about our students.

Notes on the class whiteboard from our students’ brainstorming and decision making process!

One simulation we love is our Sinking Ship simulation (idea credit: we first read about this here). When we tried this, we had the students in half groups (when half the class is with us and half the class is with a different teacher) so we only had 13 students at a time. For each group, we started by handing out “assignments” on folded slips of paper.

The different roles were:

  • migrant worker
  • senator
  • someone who is currently unemployed
  • child
  • firefighter
  • teacher
  • nurse
  • doctor
  • babysitter
  • college student
  • taxi driver
  • lawyer
  • scientist

We then asked our students to get in a circle and told them that they were on a sinking ship, and there were only FIVE spots in the lifeboat. They had to work together to decide as a group which five people should go in the lifeboat. We gave them no restrictions on how they should decide, simply a time limit of 20 minutes to decide. We answer questions (some students don’t know what “migrant worker” means), but tell them the decision is up to the group! Then we sit back, watch, and listen.

Almost all of the students immediately started making arguments for why they should be on the lifeboat. The senator claimed that he should get on the boat because he is important. Another student countered, “Not on the lifeboat, you’re not!” One of our favorite funny moments occurred when someone agreed with the “senator” that he should be on the boat and another student said quietly to himself, “It depends if he is a Democrat or a Republican.”

Why We Love this Simulation

We love this simulation for so many reasons —

  • It is fascinating to watch the students work it out amongst themselves!
  • It’s also interesting to hear the arguments the students come up with, and note which students give up immediately when they read their assignment and decide that their job isn’t “good” enough.
  • It is also very telling (and part of our debrief) to note when students laugh. Some laugh out loud when they read their role to their classmates and others start play acting their preconceived idea of that role. For example, the student who received “you are currently unemployed” said, “I just graduated from college. I don’t have a job and I live in my mother’s basement!” in a goofy voice as if he was acting out a role, and put labels on himself.
  • It makes the link between wealth and power tangible for students. This deepens really the analysis during our Economics unit.
  • It reminds students that there is often more to the story about a human being, which helps them ask good questions and create multi-dimensional characters during our Storytelling unit.

The Two Group’s Decisions

In the first group, the students worked collaboratively and ensured that everyone’s voice was heard (with some raised voices, but general agreement), while in the second group, one student took charge and made decisions for the group that were later challenged as “unfair.” The two groups also came to different conclusions about who should get a spot on the lifeboat.

Their final choices for which “characters” should be on the lifeboat were:

Group One:

  1. Doctor
  2. Child
  3. Nurse
  4. Scientist
  5. College student

Group Two:

  1. Child
  2. Person who is currently unemployed
  3. Doctor
  4. Senator
  5. College student

After the students finalize their decisions, we have a group discussion and then have them complete a reflection for homework. The next day, as a whole class, we share the two groups’ decisions. Students are always surprised to find that the other group chose different people (although they always agree that the child should go on the lifeboat, which honestly does make us happy).

In our class discussion, some students share feelings of frustration that other members of their half group made assumptions about them or didn’t seriously consider their argument. This past Spring, one of us mentioned to a student that President Barack Obama fit the description of “person who is currently unemployed.” He had initially given up and said he wasn’t even going to try to make a claim for why he should be on the lifeboat, but that reminder caused him to make several impassioned arguments and eventually convince his classmates he deserved a spot on the boat.

Student Reflections

“I thought it was unfair because it was based on stereotypes and generalization.”

“One thing that did not go well was there was a lot of stereotypes of “taxi driver” and the “currently unemployed”. This is bad because just because someone does not have a job does not mean they are not smart. Also people were saying things like how can a taxi driver help. This made us choose people whose jobs make more money, not on their basic humanity!”

“I can connect this to the real world with people who say people who have bad paying jobs aren’t smart. In this I felt stereotyped and I can connect that with the real world because people were using the same stereotypes.”

Who would you choose to go on the lifeboat? Do you have other ideas for collaborative problem solving simulations? How else can we push our students to think critically about who is valued in our society and how different people or roles are valued?


Nina currently teaches 3rd grade in Washington DC, but has taught a variety of students of many ages in Chicago, New York, Berlin, New Delhi, and more. She is passionate about social justice and anti-bias education and is always looking for new ways to teach her students about the world. Nina blogs on Medium at: https://medium.com/@ninasethi1.


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