Simulating a National Security Crisis: Learning Security in the Classroom — Zainab Ramahi and Amy Wood

soldiersOn the centennial anniversary of the First World War, high school students from across Waterloo Region gathered at the Centre for International Governance Innovation’s (CIGI) sixth annual Global Youth Forum to commemorate WWI and to place its composite events in historical and global context. Students from the University of Waterloo’s Political Science department led 120 participants through three role-playing simulations to learn about the decision-making processes and major players involved in difficult situations.[1] In this post we explore the potential of simulations to support high school students in understanding complex security themes.

In each of three simulations—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, and the detention of Omar Khadr in 2002—students were faced with the reality of making difficult choices in time-sensitive scenarios in which they had incomplete information. The simulation characters had diverse roles—a soldier, a civilian, a Central Intelligence Agency operative etc.—and each choice a participant made would have consequences for themselves, their community and their country’s security. Students grappled with questions of ethics and national security (who is considered a terrorist? what is the role of civilians turned militants in a conflict? what is an appropriate state response to a security threat?) and became more keenly aware of the inter-play of interests, behaviours and decisions.

By including both historical and contemporary scenarios, the simulation worked to show students the weight, magnitude and complexity of security decisions. The simulation presented challenging ideas to students in a way that they were able to concretize. This bridge between ideas and understanding was empathy. One tool to encourage empathetic reasoning this was the use of profile cards which provided a narrative of each simulation character. This prompted participants to think about their decisions through a particular lens—whether ideological, normative or through their character’s personality traits—particularly when they did not have complete information or intelligence. As the simulation progressed, students became increasingly invested in achieving their character’s objectives and ultimately in their character’s outcome.

There were, however, limitations to students’ ability to conceptualize the scenario. In the case of Omar Khadr, students found it challenging to consider the real or perceived conflict between security and civil liberties. Decisions were often based on consequences for an individual character, rather than on their mandate, an ethical code, or the population they represented.

Through two years of creating and running simulations with high school students, we have learned several lessons. Inclusion of the following elements can increase the relevance and success of the simulation:

  • Multiple facilitators with a strong grasp of the simulation’s characters, decisions and outcomes, and who can guide or challenge students and their decisions when necessary;
  • Commensurate educational materials that give greater historical context for the simulations and a foundational knowledge of key themes that can be taught before or after the simulation;
  • An incentive—such as a participation grade—to encourage students to treat the simulation as realistically as possible, and to invest in their character; and
  • Post-simulation discussion questions with adequate time to allow students to reflect on their experience. This is an opportunity for students to consider their decisions, help develop their own thought processes, and apply the simulation’s learnings to present day socio-political phenomena.

By commemorating the anniversary of WWI using simulation, students realized in more concrete terms the decisions that catalyzed the war. The simulation encouraged students to empathize with their character, make decisions based on the supplied information, and allowed to students to understand challenging concepts perhaps more quickly or fully than in the classroom alone. The simulation was also a valuable recruiting tool as it provided students an opportunity to reason through complex issues with the University of Waterloo students at the facilities of the Balsillie School. A coordinator’s package—based on the Guidelines for Ontario High School Curriculum—is available to high school teachers interested in using these simulation exercises. For more information about security simulations and for additional resources, please contact Dr. Veronica Kitchen.

About the authors: Zainab Ramahi recently graduated with her Bachelor of Knowledge Integration from the University of Waterloo. Amy Wood has a Master of Arts in Global Governance from the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Together with Dr. Veronica Kitchen, they developed the security simulations discussed here. A CTE Teaching Story on Dr. Kitchen is available here.

[1] The simulation is also suitable for undergraduate classrooms and it was first conducted in a second year World Politics course taught by Dr. Veronica Kitchen.

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