hand with digital bubbles aboveSimulations help build real-life experience 

When you compare challenging leadership roles across virtually all industries, being a principal is certainly at the top of any “most challenging” list. Secondary school administrators need to communicate, coordinate, and make decisions in the most challenging and emotionally charged circumstances.

What makes these leadership jobs so challenging? Decisions frequently require difficult trade-offs, making it hard to execute under the best of circumstances. Furthermore, each group of stakeholders has demands completely exclusive of each other. Think about it—students, teachers, parents, unions, communities, districts, governments—all of them have a serious stake in principal decisions, almost on a daily basis, and all of them seem to require something different.

This makes the challenge not just about making good decisions, which is difficult enough, but also about preparing for the potentially negative reactions from myriad constituencies.

The best way to build this leadership capability is through experience. The challenge, of course, is how to provide experience without the risk and time of learning through the school of “hard knocks.” Research shows that computer-​based simulation is one of the best vehicles for effectively and practically delivering consistent experiences across an organization. It’s odd, then, that when schools and districts choose to invest in building staff capabilities to enable them to do something new, the chosen method is often instructional, not experiential.

Instructional vs. Experiential Methods

Instructional design has many good tools and techniques and is an important and compelling field; however, as its name implies, it is really effective for designing instruction. Its focus is primarily on learning the what and the how of the required changes, not on gaining insight from understanding and practicing the why and when of things. The how and what are necessary, but not sufficient for bringing about change. When it comes to displaying judgment (demonstrating the why and when), why not take a more dynamic approach—one that takes into account context and relationships?

Storytelling and Decision Making

Our focus is on behavioral, branching simulations. These computer-based applications are focused on providing participants, such as principals, with an opportunity to exhibit these three criteria:

  • Exercising critical thinking and decision making

  • Experiencing consequences 

  • Receiving feedback

These applications happen as a “choose your own adventure” exercise of sorts, where the participant is placed into a series of scenarios in which they are challenged with decisions they must make. Then they experience the consequences of their choices by following that “branch” where it takes them. These scenarios are, in essence, mini experiences with an impact that is influenced by the depth and applicability of the exercise. The complex interconnectedness of these scenarios helps to capture a period of time in the life of a secondary school leader and incorporate content (leadership, ethics, team building, etc.) with context (environment, people, task, culture, etc.) to imitate real life.

For example, in one simulated exercise, participants take on the life of a school administrator who, after coming back from a girls’ basketball game where the school won, turns on the local school board meeting newsfeed to listen in. The administrator sees an angry parent complaining that the coach swears at the girls during basketball practices and something must be done. In the next scene, the principal gets to the office, greeted by two voice mails—the first from the local sports reporter, the other from the superintendent.

This is how the simulation begins. The participants then make decisions relating to managing this issue—dealing with the complex dynamics of relationships that include the parent, the basketball coach, the superintendent, and the students. Participants make decisions and experience the consequences in the evolving timeline, and they are challenged with exercising judgment for each decision. Issues run the gamut from a difficult conversation, such as a teacher dress code issue, to more complicated issues relating to social media challenges, special education, zero tolerance policies, bullying, student suicide, and racial conversations.

Delivering the Experience 

The great part about simulations and “experience design” comes from the experience itself, not whether or not the participant gets it right. When you think back to the most powerful lessons you have learned, often you find they are driven by a failure you experienced. When we face a new situation, a typical response will start with some kind of “gut reaction” to what we perceive is going on. Somewhere in our brains, we sift through a portfolio of experiences and search for relevant or applicable instances where we have seen this kind of thing before. We then garner some insight into the situation we are facing and take action.

What happens when this “experience portfolio” is empty—for example, when an administrator has been recently promoted from being a teacher leader to now being an assistant principal, or when a seasoned principal experiences a recent district change, or an entirely new situation? In these situations, simulation experience proves very effective.

By playing through an experience of leading and dealing with coaching issues or difficult conversations, participants are able to deposit some relevant and application-oriented files into their experience portfolios that can be called upon later in life. When performing the simulation, participants also get to practice their decision-making and critical-thinking skills. By making a selection from the choice of options they are presented with, they also gain experience with using judgment. Given the contextual nature of the challenge, the experience portfolio helps inform their decisions but does not dictate them; they still need to think critically about what is appropriate in a particular situation.

In our angry parent example, a participant will face the choice about the first call he or she will make to start the day. Will it be a call to the parent? How about the superintendent who asked to be called right away? Or the reporter who is going to run with the story for tomorrow’s edition? What about checking with the coach to see what is going on and doing some internal investigating? Each of these decisions has a consequence that the participants will experience based on the choice they make. They may feel like they would do more than one of the choices, but the challenge, of course, is what to do first and how to deal with it.

The Experience Portfolio and Critical Thinking

Because of the way the simulations are written, participants are challenged with making decisions at key points in the narrative. Clearly this is a little more overt than the way issues may present themselves in real life, but it is through this approach that muscle memory around critical thinking gets created. Typically, when facing a situation requiring a decision, we first consult our “gut” and then take action. The challenge with this is whether our “gut” actually has a clue (relevant experience) and also whether we have the wherewithal to utilize that feeling to make a good decision in that particular situation. In other words, will I be able to consider the issue that is before me, scan my experience portfolio, and assess multiple alternatives and potential consequences before setting my strategy and taking action?

From the perspective of populating the experience portfolio, simulated experiences often have an advantage over the real thing. Rarely does a scenario that we face happen in a vacuum. It is sometimes difficult to connect the causes and effects of various elements. Computer-based simulation enables us to connect the decisions and their consequences so that the file in the experience portfolio will be richer and more complete. By providing an experience in a context that looks like one’s own environment, with similar challenges and the ability to gain practice in that context while thinking critically, suddenly the gaps between understanding and application shrink dramatically.

Given the current education environment, finding ways to provide secondary school administrators with the experience they need quickly is increasingly important. Simulations can provide necessary experience. They increase the speed and efficacy of decision making and improve both the school’s culture and, ultimately, student outcomes.

Sidebar: Making it Work

Use an experience-driven approach to deliver top-notch professional development. By focusing on experience as opposed to information, you can harness the expertise and inherent interest of your teams to drive engagement in professional development activities.

Focus on a current, relevant building challenge. Engage the team in alternative paths that could have been considered and what the potential consequences of those choices might have been. This encourages peer-to-peer conversations that promote sharing and active participation in problem solving.

Use simulations for organic interaction. Computer-based education leadership simulations play the role of an automated case study, making the administrator’s job much easier. You’ll reap the social learning benefits of group dynamics, and if time is a factor, you can share the simulations with the team in advance of the meeting and then use part of the scheduled meeting for a group debrief on the experience. 

Ken Spero is CEO of Ed Leadership SIMS (ELS), which offers simulations for education administrators.