How to Teach Using Simulations & Systems

How to Teach Using Simulations & Systems

Serious games provide a new way to learn about complex systems. MIT's David Keith describes how instructors can "drive the future."
NBS September 22, 2018
Most business schools teach an “open-loop” planning model, in which problem-solving moves through linear stages. MIT Sloan’s LearningEdge initiative takes a different approach. 

At the Sustainability Centres Community workshop, David Keith described how LearningEdge builds on systems thinking to provide hands-on ways of understanding the world.

Planning must consider complexity 

Open-loop thinking argues that problem solving moves through stages of identifying goals, gathering data, evaluating alternatives, and implementing solutions. 
 
But the real world is complex and uncertain. Often managers lack full information and conditions change quickly. Actions lead to unpredictable reactions. “We make decisions, they have consequences, they change the state of the world, and they influence our decisions subsequently,” Keith explained. “This is continuous, emergent, potentially nonlinear behavior.”   
 
As a result, decision-makers must understand the broader system, not just a few isolated elements. And, they need to be prepared to act dynamically. For example, a person driving a car can map the direction to a restaurant, but must be able to adapt in real time to road closure or a traffic jam. 

Serious games teach students sustainability and systems

LearningEdge develops “management flight simulators,” similar to aircraft flight simulators, as a way of communicating real-world complexity. Simulators try to put students “in a situation where they are facing the same challenges as the real decision-makers,” said Keith. The goal: help them build understanding of systems challenges that they will apply once in the workforce. 
 
The instructor becomes a “guide on the side” rather than the traditional “sage on the stage.”  Management simulators encourage rapid experimentation. Students direct their own learning, owning the outcomes. Simulations are not toys, Keith said. “These are the best empirically grounded models that we can develop.”
MIT’s free simulations include:
Each comes with materials for instructors, including video teaching notes and slides. Simulations can be scheduled for 60-120 minutes, and involve 4-100 participants.

Open questions remain about simulations’ effectiveness

Do simulations lead to better learning outcomes than traditional educational approaches? “Participants say they are just more interesting, more engaging,” said Keith. His research shows that short-term learning outcomes are greater than in more passive forms of education (e.g., reading a report about the simulation results). However, he doesn’t yet know if the knowledge acquired via a simulation persists, or if this knowledge helps participants make better decisions outside the classroom. Anecdotally, Keith believes that the simulators develop problem-solving skills, and highlight the challenge of changing complex and slow-moving systems. 

Keith provides a teaching example with Driving the Future 

Keith showed workshop participants how an instructor might use a simulation in the classroom. The Driving the Future simulation draws on Keith’s extensive research in the auto industry. Users explore the strategy and policy levers that influence the diffusion of Alternative Fuel Vehicles (AFV) in the United States through 2050. The player is the U.S. “car czar,” with the job of managing the fleet.
 
Instructors begin by framing the problem. They can use a few slides, with videos and readings for additional background. For Driving the Future, the background framing is that AFV adoption (currently one per cent of US auto sales) is too low to meet energy and environmental goals. 

Instructors can involve students by either: 
In Driving the Future, students can change incentives, ads, taxes, and fuel pricing. Their actions lead to shifts in various metrics representing the “state of the world.”
 
In a 90-minute class, Keith generally saves 30 minutes for intro and debrief.

Students share insights after “Driving the Future"

Here’s what Keith hears from students after they participate in the simulation:

View the session PowerPoint

Simulations_and_Systems_PowerPoint.pdf
Click to download

Further Reading

David Keith’s paper in Simulation and Gaming describes Driving the Future 
News and Events

Eighty leaders of sustainability centres gathered for the 2018 Sustainability Centres Community workshop in New York City.

NBS
News and Events

Sixty leaders of sustainability research centres gathered for the 2016 Sustainability Centres Community (SCC) workshop in Fontainebleau, France.

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Reports and Articles

Advice on teaching sustainability from business school sustainability centre directors, gathered at the 2016 NBS Sustainability Centres Workshop at INSEAD.

Chelsea Hicks-Webster