Simulations and “what if?” learning

Simulations and “what if?” learning

Simulation and gaming expert Clark Aldrich has argued that both “big skills” (leadership, negotiation, etc.) and “middle skills” (managing people or processes) are best learned through the “learning by doing” of simulations. At the heart of every simulation lies a series of “what if?” questions. The process of answering those questions drives simulation participants to engage, explore, and learn.
When pilots in flight simulators practice responding to the unexpected, they are engaged in this question-and-answer process. What if the right engine suddenly dies? What if the landing gear gets stuck? What are my options? What should I do? A successful training experience in this environment prepares the pilot not only to respond that specific challenge, but also develops the skills to handle unforeseen, perhaps even “unthinkable” events.
On a less dramatic basis, online simulations can mimic the common scenarios that learners may encounter in business, the professions, and other fields. What if the software project falls behind schedule? What if team members aren’t working together? What if the new product launch runs into softer demand? All of these scenarios can be modeled and presented to the learner with a series of options to choose, that, over time, have consequences for the organization.

At the heart of every simulation lies a series of “what if?” questions. The process of answering those questions drives simulation participants to engage, explore, and learn.

As a type of narrative learning, online simulations draw on the power of the story to spark engagement and interest. Effective simulations are grounded in the day-to-day reality of the workplace; learners shouldn’t feel that they have to suspend disbelief when immersed in the simulation.
MindEdge’s coached online simulations include video commentary from subject matter experts who relate what they might have done when faced with a given “what if?” At numerous points in our simulations, we let participants compare their thinking with that of experienced practitioners. This highlights not only the “what” of decision-making (the problem-solving involved in tackling difficult decisions), but also the “why,” the context and reasons for choosing a given course of action.
An effective simulation prepares the learner for “what if?” situations in the future; it teaches different ways of finding answers and of responding to uncertainty. When the time comes that the challenge is real, the learner should have enough familiarity with thinking through the issues to make more informed decisions.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders