Sailing the Indian Ocean … in Room 26

A student buys goods from harbormaster Bilge in a simulation for tenth graders at Leysin American School

Ah, simulations. They can be such good learning experiences. 

But they require creative thinking, repackaging content, pre-planning, finding materials, perhaps  a lot of cutting and sorting materials into envelopes. They make you have to think like someone developing a new board game. They make you have to guess what will happen, what the learning might be, what might be productive to debrief. And above all, they require the teacher to take a risk because, after all, the whole effort might just cross over into chaos, observed by every student in the class. 

But they can be such good learning experiences. 

Bilge, a visiting scholar of Leysin American School (LAS) Educational Research, and I recently had the opportunity to participate in a simulation for a grade 10 English Language Acquisition (EAL) Pre-AP History class. Brian, the teacher, was looking for some help managing the simulation, so we jumped in. We got so interested we thought we would share the experience and reflect a bit on the value of making the effort to create, and improve over time, a simulation for the classroom.

The setting is the Indian Ocean in the 1400s. Ships are sailing between China, India, and the city-states on the east coast of Africa. Their holds are full of iron, pottery, silk, and other commodities. The distances the ships sail are incredible and the amounts of money enormous – at least when all goes well. The trading brings together people of different languages and religions, a mixing of cultures made tolerant through the promise of a healthy profit.

The students have read about trading during this era in their book. Now they are going to live it.

In total we visited three classes, seeing the simulation improve with each iteration. In the first version, with a dozen students, Brian, Bilge and I each worked as a harbormaster at a port, noting purchases and sales on accounting sheets. Because we were all busy managing our own ports, a bit of the overall coordination was lost, as Brian tried to be both simulation facilitator and harbormaster. The directions had taken a long time, Bilge and I were new to our roles, and time ran out before Brian could debrief the students about what they learned. However, the simulation was a valuable experience for the students since they were actively engaged and had the opportunity to use communication skills during negotiations with the harbormasters. The three of us talked about how it went, brainstormed some ideas, and Brian prepared for a different EAL Pre-AP History class the following day. 

In the second iteration, there were four adults. (Daniela the librarian joined Bilge and me as harbormasters so that Brian could focus on overall facilitation.) There were only four students in the class. We recognized that the student to teacher ratio wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term, but it was helpful for the simulation. Brain added in a few more hindrances (theft in the ports, ship repairs, and changing wind directions) and replaced the accounting process from the first iteration with images of coins and commodities to allow for “real” transactions. Now the students, as sailors and traders, had a clear goal: earn the most money. Buying low and selling high mattered. Developing efficient trade routes was obviously a plus. Avoiding thieves, repairs, and bad weather saved time and money. And bartering took on new urgency.

The second iteration ended without time for debriefing, which wasn’t ideal, since taking time to discuss what happened – and how it reflected the actual situation in the 1400s – is a key piece of the learning. However, the students enjoyed the simulation while performing their roles and got a general idea of the Indian Ocean trading of the era. We teachers debriefed one more time and Brian prepared for a third round, this time for a longer class period and in a larger room, and with a few more tricks up his sleeve. 

The third iteration was again with about a dozen students, but now just two adults, Brian and me. I was the harbormaster in China again, but the other two harbors were run by students in the class. Our materials were all ready ahead of time. Brian also set more specific conditions before we began. For me, in China, that meant I would only accept coins, no goods in trades at all. 

Brian started the simulation as the facilitator. The first traders in my harbor bartered hard. So hard they were a bit impolite, so I refused to trade with them. They left unhappy with me as a teacher, I think, though I was hoping they recognized they were actually upset with me, the offended Chinese harbormaster. Brian introduced some further fun into the simulation, requiring the crews of some ships to eat oranges (real oranges he had brought along) to battle the scurvy they were suffering from. Sometimes a ship got damaged while at sea and the crew, the students, had to sit for two minutes, symbolizing the need for repairs, and losing precious trading time.

Brian also stopped the action along the way (1) to quickly debrief and (2) to change the prices of some commodities. All those students who had been buying ivory tusks for the huge profits they expected in China were suddenly disappointed – the ivory market had crashed! I didn’t buy any of their ivory at all, making a face when they showed me their pictures of ivory tusks they thought were going to bring in so many coins. Brian’s short stoppages of the action were brilliant, introducing variables that changed the game and provided new material to debrief. And debrief we did, during this third iteration, because the simulation took place during a class period long enough to run the simulation and talk about what happened and how it was similar to the real trade that happened in the Indian Ocean.

Wow. It goes without saying that the students were actively engaged the entire class period – in all three iterations – that they actually made a bit of an emotional connection with trading that happened in the Indian Ocean over 500 years ago, and that they were able to connect trading back then with commerce and economics today.

To summarize, we paraphrase Polina, a Ukrainian student, who said this:

History isn’t about the past. It’s about understanding more about what is happening right now, and what is going to happen in the future.

We agree, Polina.

And would you like to buy some rolls of silk? Or some crates of tea? Get them now while the winds and the prices are in your favor!


Paul was joined by:

Bilge Kalkavan of the Faculty of Education at Hasan Kalyoncu University, Turkey. She became a harbormaster for this simulation during her stay at LAS as a visiting scholar; and

Brian Tynan, a grade 10 history teacher, who himself has sailed to many ports in his career. Kudos to Brian for taking the risk (and the time!) to run simulations in class.

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