Simulating to get real

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. 

I’ve been working with a teacher for two or maybe even three years now. He invites me to his class when he is running simulations. We’ve done some joint planning, some joint debriefing. This school year he is getting financial support from the school to further his work. He has presented his work at two conferences. I’m ready to support him with writing and publishing. He’s ready.

A student asks what a pipe looks like, so the teacher projects images of pipes. One of the photos of pipes is the Treachery of Images, painted by René Magritte in 1929. 

This is not a pipe.

What a perfect way to think about a simulation. These students are not really shipping goods from England to the colonies in the New World. There is no ocean here, no ships, no money. There is a certain treachery, because everything is make-believe. But because of the treachery, this trickery, the learning will be, in fact, very real. We simulate to get real. These students are, I predict, going to feel this lesson emotionally. That is, they will be trying to make (fake) money with (fake) exports, in competition with each other. 

The teacher just announced there are going to be times when he introduces Breaking News. This is his method of making the simulation more interesting, of including more historical context. And of incidental English teaching. 

Breaking news! Britain is distracted by wars back in Europe including an English Civil War (1642-1651). They’re happy with the wealth they are gaining from the colonies, but take a hands off approach to working with them. This is known as “Salutary Neglect.”


  1. What does “hands off” mean?
  2. What are “colonies?”

Brilliant. There was history teaching there, just what was needed to support the simulation. And there was English teaching there, none of the students here are native speakers of English. “Colonies” is subject specific, but there isn’t getting around needing to learn that word. So teach it. “Hands off” transcends any particular class. Fantastic.

He helps each group allocate some of their initial money. They are playing a game. They are getting ready. And then he steps back and explains the context of what was going on, historically. More of the history lesson, embedded in the game. He’s onto something here. He’s making history real, through all this deception.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

So I mentioned there is no water here, we are in a classroom. But! The teacher plays a video of waves hitting the beach. He turns up the volume and asks the students to shut their eyes and smell the salt in the air. They are getting ready to set sail. He explains how they are going to sell their products. They have a sheet to keep track of their transactions. I’m not sure I understand what they are going to do, but the students seem comfortable. They begin rolling in order to know how much money they make. Some get good rolls, some less good. A roll of 6 is celebrated, they get a premium price for their goods. A roll of 1, well, it was a long trip across that ocean to make so little money.

Now the students have to sail back to England, back to France or the Netherlands. But, the teacher explains, it would be terrible business to sail back with empty holds. Instead they load up with materials. He plays the video of the waves hitting the beach. I smell the salt, feel some sand between my toes. We sail back to Europe.

Breaking news! The English civil war is coming to an end. This means the Crown has more resources to start making sure taxes are paid. There is a slight risk to do business with the Dutch or the French.

What does this mean for you? 

  1. To do business in the Netherlands or France, you must smuggle.
  2. What does smuggle mean?

So the students choose whether they sail to England, for lower prices, but with lower risk, or if they sail to France or the Netherlands, where the prices will be higher but, as smugglers, there is greater risk. 

Two groups choose to sail to the UK. One group accepts the risk and sails to the Netherlands. The teacher puts up the prices. If our smugglers are successful, they’ll make nearly twice as much as the other groups. But, of course, they could lose it all, too.

There are things to work on here. We’ll be able to make things better, or “more intuitive,” as the teacher says. Exactly. That’s why the school is supporting his use of simulations. By trial and error, over multiple iterations, the simulation will get better and better, more effective. The job of the school administrator, Justin Reich of MIT says, is to give teachers space to try things out and to talk to other teachers about what they are trying out. I wish Reich were here, I want to share this moment with someone who gets it. 

The group in port in the Netherlands rolls the dice. Oops, bad luck. They have been caught smuggling. They lose their load, they’ve lost a lot of money. The two groups that chose safe trading in England look a little smug. 

Teaching and learning can be very creative. History can be lived. A bit of context, the sound of waves on the beach, the desire to win a game, all providing context to learn terms like salutary neglect. Faking it in order to understand trade across the Atlantic in the 1600s, to learn transferable expressions in English. No one had their head on the table, no one asked to go to the bathroom, no one snuck a look at the phone or checked their GPA on their computer.

This is not a pipe (dream)!

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