Professional Development

Can Classroom Simulators Help Teachers Improve Instruction?

By Arianna Prothero — June 26, 2023 3 min read
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Pilots regularly use flight simulators to learn and practice maneuvering through a variety of complex and challenging situations.

Can teachers use a similar approach to practice navigating the complexity of a classroom, where they will see students with different racial and ethnic backgrounds, language barriers, and special needs?

That question is at the heart of a years-long research initiative headed up by two researchers at the University of North Texas with funding from the National Science Foundation. The researchers are studying how classroom simulators can help educators identify and address their implicit biases toward students and meet the individual needs of each student.

The research, so far, shows that teachers are more likely to assume that students labeled in the simulator as English learners or those with Individual Learning Plans are less likely to succeed, even when the student avatars in the simulator are performing at the same level as those without an IEP or English-learner label.

But after several passes through the same simulation, teachers’ biases wane and they become more confident in their ability to address students’ individual needs, the researchers found.

Their findings were presented at the International Society for Technology in Education annual conference in Philadelphia this week.

Education Week spoke by phone with the two researchers—Rhonda Christensen and Gerald Knezek, both research professors of learning technologies at the University of North Texas—about what this classroom simulation looks like and how it could help teachers improve their practice.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you describe what this simulation looks like if I were a teacher?

Knevek: If you can imagine that you were sitting in an aircraft cockpit. But in our case, the view on the screen is from the teacher’s desk. So, you see the students in front of you, there are various skin colors and various poses—and some fall asleep and some are putting lipstick on and so forth during your class.

Christensen: Some students might have IEPs, some students might be English language learners. So, you go in, you make choices on teaching, you can make classroom management decisions, you can make accommodation decisions, and then you’re teaching in the live simulation.

You found that using the simulator improved teachers’ self-confidence. Why does that matter?

Christensen: We know that if a teacher feels confident in their teaching, they’re more likely to give students what they need. When I was a teacher my first year, it was overwhelming. When you don’t have as much confidence in your teaching strategies, you don’t teach as well. And it’s not as good for students.

What I think the simulation gives you is confidence. If this [strategy] didn’t work, you could try something different. So, it’s not that you try something that didn’t work and give up. You get good feedback and then you reflect on it, and then you start again.

You say in your paper that teachers with confidence are more likely to problem solve and address students’ issues within the classroom, whereas teachers with low confidence in their teaching abilities are more likely to send a student for a discipline referral.

Christensen: And also quit. We have a huge shortage of teachers right now, and I think part of it is they just don’t feel like this is working. We know that teachers leave within the first three to five years, that’s where the biggest attrition is. If you can’t develop your confidence in your teaching strategies, you don’t feel like you can do it.

So, is one of the benefits of a simulation that it’s a low-stakes learning environment? It’s OK to make mistakes?

Knevek: You’re absolutely right. In fact, we tell our pre-service students [at the University of North Texas] that this is your opportunity to break “not-real students.” Rhonda was [earlier] referring to her first year, and mine was a similar experience when I was a student teacher on a Native American reservation in Montana. I was completely, uh, not of the culture. It was sink or swim.

How do you see a school or university program using simulators?

Christensen: It’s a great professional development tool: you get feedback and people can do it on their own time. Teachers love that. They’re not in a “sit-and-get” kind of professional development.

We use it with our undergraduate students, pre-service teachers. When you do your clinical teaching with the class or when you go observe students, you don’t necessarily see every kind of student you can see: ADHD, spectrum disorder, and ELL so that you can experience what kind of strategies might work. Cause you may never see them until you’re an actual classroom teacher and suddenly you have a student in your classroom like that.


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