Professional Development

Training Teachers With Digital Classroom Simulations

By Madeline Will — April 21, 2016 4 min read
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Cross-posted from the Teaching Now blog.

Imagine a student-teacher in front of a classroom, trying to get control of the classroom. A student might pull out his phone or make a comment that disrupts the rest of the class. The prospective teacher will then use classroom-management techniques that she has learned in her own classes to re-engage the students in the lesson.

Nothing out of the ordinary. But at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, that classroom is a computer-based mixed-reality simulation. The students are avatars, programmed to be unruly to test prospective teachers’ classroom-management skills.

This semester, about 60 education students participated in the education school’s pilot program as a required part of their classwork. In the fall, students will use the simulator for practicing instruction and next spring, the focus will be on behavior management, said Stephanie Van Hover, the chairwoman of the Curry School’s department of curriculum, instruction, and special education, in an email. This will be required for the 150 students in the pre-student-teaching placement across the elementary, secondary, and special education fields, she said.

“To be able to start teaching on day one with more proficiency in classroom management and more confidence in your management skills could not be more valuable to a beginning teacher and the students with whom they work,” Robert Pianta, the dean of the Curry School, said in an article about the program in UVA Today, the university’s news site.

Sure, teachers in training can and do learn these skills in real-life classrooms. But researchers and education professors say the classroom simulation has some unique advantages.

First, it allows teacher candidates to experiment with different classroom-management techniques, honing their own skills instead of having to use a veteran teacher’s rules and structures during student-teaching. Second, it allows an opportunity for immediate feedback—at UVA, faculty supervisors are evaluating the student teachers’ implementation of classroom-management strategies while the simulation is happening. Third, student teachers can feel free to make mistakes in a low-risk environment—they won’t hurt a real child’s feelings by saying the wrong thing.

One of the researchers on the project, University of Virginia professor Catherine Bradshaw, told UVA Today that she and her team of doctoral students are also measuring the prospective teachers’ heart rates and blood pressure during the lessons to see how they react when a student is misbehaving or is disrespectful.

Being aware of their responses to students’ behaviors can help teacher candidates work to become less reactive and more strategic, said Jillian McGraw, a doctoral student who supervises the teacher candidates using the simulator.

In 2011, my colleague Stephen Sawchuk wrote about these budding simulation programs in education schools. At the time, the University of Central Florida was on the cutting edge of classroom simulations, with its TeachME initiative, which allowed teachers in training to practice in a virtual classroom. That program (now called TeachLivE) has spread to over 85 college campuses in the United States--including UVA.

More recently, Sawchuk wrote about teacher preparation programs that use actors to portray students in a simulation designed for teacher candidates to test certain skills and techniques. At Vanderbilt University, for example, a live simulation allows teacher candidates to practice their cultural sensitivity with actors portraying students of color.

Pianta said simulation programs have value beyond teacher preparation and can be used for other professional roles--like school counseling, psychology, and educational leadership.

TeachLivE partnered with the startup Mursion last year to broaden the use of virtual simulation for professional learning on a commercial scale. Mursion has expanded the platform into health-care and customer-service training, while TeachLivE focuses on research and development. On Monday, Mursion unveiled enhancements to the platform, including an interactive workspace where teacher candidates can correct the work of the student-avatars. Each student-avatar has a tablet whose contents are mirrored on the teacher candidate’s tablet. That way, the teacher candidate can see students’ responses to an assignment in real time and respond to their work.

“New teachers often struggle with how to analyze and discuss student work,” said Stephen Bronack, an assistant dean at the University of West Georgia’s college of education, in a statement. “The addition of the shared workspace enables us to prepare teachers to better interpret common student errors.”

According to TeachLivE, education students who went through four 10-minute sessions with the classroom simulator outperformed those who used traditional training methods.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.