Avoiding Overload in Simulations
Mickey’s 6th Commandment for theme park design is Avoid Overload, Create Turn-Ons. While I’ve gotten very good at the second part I struggle mightily with the first. I kind of love overload. My mind is always going in a thousand directions so having lots to do and think about at once works out great for me. Its part of why I love Disneyland so much. Every one of your senses is stimulated. Somehow though you are never overloaded (tired maybe, but not overloaded.) They do such an incredible job at giving you only the information you need when you need and trusting you to do the rest.
For awhile I got away with giving my kids all the information up front and leaving them to their own devices. Most of my kids did fine and I could help the few per class that needed more support. Not any more. The last few years my kids across the board have really struggled with reading, so long, complex simulations that require step by step actions by each have not been very effective. In fact, they’ve often been down right frustrating. None moreso than what used to be one of my favorite activities of the year, TCI’s Feudalism simulation.
In it each student is assigned a role as a monarch, lord, knight or peasant. Each role has its own instruction sheet that must be followed step by step. It ends with a really fun moment where they build walls out of their desks to fend off an attack by a poorly costumed viking (me.) If anyone isn’t fulfilling their role the lab doesn’t work out properly (kind of like real Feudalism but still…annoying.) It has always been an exhausting activity for me to manage but it got to the point where it just wasn’t work with enough students. Something had to change.
If you’re interested in trying that version or just seeing it for comparison, here are the pieces:
My first change was to double down on the overload, quite literally. I made another version of the lab based on Japanese Feudalism. I figured if I was going to put the effort into teaching them how to run this simulation I might as well do it twice to get more bang for the buck. This worked out pretty well. The Japanese version is similar but has its own unique twists, in particular a ninja role that adds some excitement to the peasant classes. It worked out well and helped set up some good comparison discussions. However, it didn’t solve the problems with the initial lab. It just got progressively more frustrating each time.
Here's the Japan Version:
Finally, a few years ago, I skipped the lab for one of my more challenging classes. Instead, I did a very simple Feudalism simulation with cups of Skittles. Students still drew random roles but they didn’t do anything in those roles other than pay the class above them taxes. The kids got the idea but it wasn’t nearly as memorable as the “full” version of the activity.
So, I decided to try to put the two versions together. I wanted the depth and deep role-playing of the original with the fun and simplicity of the redo. The first step was to get rid of the individual instruction sheets. Not only was it a nightmare tracking the instructions for each step of the lab it was annoying to set up and collect the role sheets each period. Instead, I made one single sheet that just had general instructions for each role. Instructions for each step were moved to a PowerPoint presentation so that instructions would be “on demand” right before they were needed instead of relying on each student to read and understand their steps alone.
Without the sheets I needed a way to determine roles so I switched to playing cards. At first I planned to still have four manors (groups) and I’d divide them by suit. I realized though that just wasn’t necessary and added unnecessary overload to the activity. I cut it down to two manors. You either drew a red card and went to one side of the room or drew black and went to the other. It turns out that not only was this easier but drawing cards is a lot more fun than being handed a piece of paper!
Here's how it works.
- Divide the room into 4 zones. In the front set up a throne for the monarch. On either side set up your two manors with 8-10 desks each. In the back place the remaining desks for form the monastery.
- At the throne place chips, soda and a plastic (or real, go nuts, why not?) crown and 2 large plastic cups (collection buckets for the nobles.)
- At the manors and monastery place 2-3 paper plates with lots of skittles (these are farms), 10 small paper cups (buckets for the peasants), 2 large plastic cups (collection buckets for the knights) and 10 spoons (shovels.)
- At the monastery place a small paper cup and plastic spoon for each monk.
- Print copies of the Instruction Sheet above for each student.
- Print a copy of the Feudalsim Script for yourself.
- Get yourself a ridiculous pope miter and, optionally, and over-the-top viking helmet and beard combo.
- Download the Feudalsim Presentation file. Seriously. Download it. Do not run it through Google Slides. The activity runs on music cues (less overload, more turn-ons!) and Slides won't play them.
- Hand out a card and instruction sheet to students as they enter class. I tell them to keep them secret but it honestly doesn't matter. I also have them sit on the floor so I don't have to move the desks after they come in. The PowerPoint show should be up on the screen on slide 2.
- Read through the script as you advance the slides. Ensure students are following their roles. Be deliberate in reviewing steps before they begin. Don't be afraid to send a student to the "cemetery" if they fail to fulfill their part. I have also excommunicated students by sending them out of class entirely if they cannot behave (hey, I'm wearing a pope's hat.)
- Honestly, that's it. It's pretty darn easy now.
- If time permits you can have them build castles by arranging the desks into a circle and sitting inside. Knights may defend the castle, and nobles may defend the monarch from attack using their binders as shields. You are the vikings and you toss paper balls at them to attack.
- Have students answer the debrief questions from the slide show.
It ended up working out great. It is definitely missing some of the “energy” from the original version but after 16 years of teaching I’m ready for a little less energy sometimes. The viking attack is no longer teased throughout the lab and is completely optional. If a class makes it through the steps quickly I still do the attack but it no longer is necessary. The promises of skittles is more than enough. More importantly, the kids still get the same learning out of the lab and it is effective at that. They really get how feudalism worked. If you do the viking attack they really understand why peasants so calmly went along with the system.
So, what have we learned? Avoiding overload does not mean expecting less from our students (or guests in Disney's case.) It doesn't mean holding back on extra touches of magic (like the music, skittles and ridiculous hats). It means that our job, as Imagineering Legend Marty Sklar puts it, is to be a great editor. We need to know what our kids need to know and cut everything else out. The new version of the lab is just as effective as the original ever was in achieving the main goal of getting students to understand feudalism. It is truly more effective than the other has been the last few years. It is much more streamlined which makes for a far better experience for me and for the students. I've still got a long way to go to overcome my tendency towards overload but at least I now have a good example to follow!