By Ken Spiro

There is a silent crisis undermining School Reform. The data below paint a stark picture of the challenge facing the education space today. In any major organizational change effort, especially in a context as complex as the education system, leadership is a key ingredient to success. Of course, leadership can be defined in many different ways and it is clear that different forms of leadership are required for different situations. However, the ability to communicate, coordinate, and make decisions is key under any circumstance. Given that approach, for our purposes, Leadership can be at all levels including System/District, Building, Department, or Classroom.

What makes Leadership in Education so challenging is that those abilities are rife with painful trade-offs that make them difficult to do under the best of circumstances. The role of leadership in Education is one of the more daunting positions in any industry. Nowhere do we have a group of stakeholders whose demands are more exclusive of each other, and each one can be more irrational than the next. Students, teachers, parents, unions, communities, districts, states, government, etc.; it is practically impossible to satisfy one without dramatically upsetting at least one other. This makes the challenge not just about making good decisions, which is challenging enough, but to be prepared for the negative consequences that are sure to follow from one or more of the stakeholders that view the issue differently.

Simulations for Judgment and Decision Making

From a PD perspective, we can provide leaders with frameworks, insight, strategies and even support for this challenge, but making decisions in this challenging and evolving context is not something you can master because the minefield is constantly shifting and the consequences manifest clearly in the data below. Experience is really the only way that leaders can get better at making good decisions and good experience is often the result of making mistakes, of failing, and having the wherewithal to learn from it.

How do we provide leaders with the opportunity to fail forward but in a way that is not so painful as to cause burn-out and early exits? This is the role of simulation. By capturing realistic and engaging scenarios that manifest the different inherent challenges and enable leaders to practice Exercising Judgment, to Experience the Consequences of their decisions and to Get Feedback on what was going on, participants get the opportunity to gain experience without the pain of the school of hard knocks.

Here are some disturbing data points that have only gotten worse over time, having been exacerbated by the Pandemic:

  • Low-achieving, high-poverty schools face twice the leadership turnover rates of other schools and generally fill positions with the least experienced leaders
  • 30 percent annual turnover in low-achieving, high-poverty schools
  • Over 60 percent of urban superintendents cannot recruit or retain qualified principals
  • More than 45 percent of superintendents turned over every three years most often sighted for turnover relate to burnout caused by interpersonal challenges and conflicts

 Simulations as Engaging and Motivating PD

When it comes to professional development of any kind, the first and most important step is engagement. Much has been written about the challenges of student engagement in K-12. All the findings apply equally or even more so for adult education professionals, given the increasing and varied demands on our time. If a participant is not engaged, it does not matter how good the content is or how great an exercise is, it will fail. Therefore, we need to figure out a method for engagement as well as development. In fact, if we could determine a method of engaging participants that further motivates development, wouldn’t that be great?

We know that people learn in many different ways. This is exacerbated by age differences as well as cultural and geographical ones. However, one thing that is shared by all ages and all cultures is a love of stories. There is much research in neuroscience with respect to how we interact with stories, but it is clear from research, both anecdotal, and our own experiences, that we engage with story-driven interactions more actively and with less barriers to learning. This is why narrative-driven simulations are such a powerful modality for professional development. Scenario based simulations harness the power of storytelling to provide engaging and experiential learning opportunities. The more compelling the story, the more engaged the viewer/participant gets in the activity, having the opportunity to live vicariously through the characters in the narrative or to experience the topics being addressed. It is no longer about instruction, but rather about experience. And we all know that experience is the best teacher.  

Branching scenario simulations capture realistic narratives based on the real-life experiences of practitioner authors, manifest as a form of “choose your own adventure” exercise. In the simulations, leaders are placed into a series of scenarios in which they are challenged with increasingly complicated decisions they must make. They then experience the consequences of their choices as the simulation follows that “branch.” The scenarios are, in essence, mini experiences whose impact is influenced by the depth and applicability of the exercise. For our purposes, simulation can be defined as a complex weave of scenarios that are put together to capture a period of time in the life of a character and incorporates content (leadership, ethics, instruction, SEL, Equity, etc.) with context (environment, people, task, etc.) so that it imitates life. This combination of content and context when placed within the flow of time enables a participant to experience an issue as it could play out in real life.

Simulations demonstrate Tradeoffs and Build Resilience

What is it that keeps people from making good decisions? For that matter, what is a ‘good’ decision? This is a growing challenge, especially in the evolving world of education, and education leadership specifically. Because of the combination of increased accountability at lower levels in districts, schools and classrooms and of the increased breadth and diversity of the stakeholders, the consequences of even seemingly low-level decisions have much greater reach. This is further exacerbated by the ready access to overwhelming amounts of information, both inside the School and also for parents and communities. This data stream is filled with both meaningful and meaningless data, but being able to determine which is which helps to increase the risk of analysis paralysis and is intimidating to even the most seasoned leaders and decision makers.

From a leadership professional development
perspective, how can we address this challenge in a compelling and scalable manner? Simulations are very powerful because they provide an opportunity for us to contextualize the learning for our leaders or those aspiring to lead. When the targeted learning objectives require some kind of change (either behavioral or skill development) in the leaders, teaching is often not enough, and experience is required. Simulation provides an opportunity for leaders and leadership teams to think critically and exercise judgment in realistic scenarios, to create muscle memory around thinking and not be mindless or just reactive. It then provides an opportunity for the leaders to experience consequences so they can expand their experience portfolios with meaningful experiences that they can draw upon in real life. Plus,, the simulation experience provides insight into learning through feedback which helps to crystalize what they have experienced, and to connect the dots.

When it comes to these context-driven issues, the challenge is not to just make people more comfortable with making decisions but to be comfortable making the tough decisions and solving the tough problems, especially when the outcomes are fundamentally uncertain. It is when there is no good answer or when the best answer also has significant negatives associated with it where the real challenge is. Simulation provides a context for this kind of meaningful learning-by-doing, and this is the role and function of a trade-off report or Scorecard.

The overall goal of scenario-based simulation is not to provide participants with a recipe for effective leadership, but to demonstrate to K-12 Leaders that they need to fully understand the situation they are facing, the context in which they are facing it, evaluate it, identify possible responses, and choose the most appropriate solution.

Building Conscious Competence in Leadership

Mindlessness is a key driver of failure in decision making. We often make decisions without critically thinking about the situation we are facing. Humans are creatures of habit. Executing a skill or making a decision without much thought – “unconscious competence” – is considered a sign of expertise. But to be mindful, we need to avoid letting habit dictate the way we approach certain situations. By being mindful, we can properly maintain our expertise and be able to shift our skills and behaviors as necessary.

The overall goal of scenario-based simulation is not to provide participants with a recipe for effective leadership, but to demonstrate to K-12 Leaders that they need to fully understand the situation they are facing, the context in which they are facing it, evaluate it, identify possible responses, and choose the most appropriate solution. In other words, the focus of the simulation is to encourage judgment or Conscious Competence.

To do this, the scenarios need to be written to reflect the types of decisions that the leaders face in real life. When participants are faced with a decision in a simulation scenario, they are with alternative options to choose from that should provide

  • Valid alternative courses of action. This encourages the leaders to consider different alternatives based on their respective tradeoffs. Choosing between valid courses of action helps to remove the blinders that many K-12 Leaders wear with regard to the habits they have developed and the myopic viewpoints they may have on certain issues.
  • Opportunities to choose both mindful and mindless courses of action. Leaders get to experience the costs and benefits of conscious (mindful) versus unconscious (mindless) thinking through the discussion prompted by the simulation when doing it in groups or through feedback provided in the simulation.

Much has been written on the challenges of mindful decision making and what I have experienced over the years is the many ways that simulations can help to build muscle memory around being consciously competent irrespective of the skills being addressed both in their content but also in how they are delivered.

Three Ways Scenarios Encourage Mindfulness

Simulations also encourage mindful behavior by encouraging information gathering from multiple sources, placing focus on both process and outcomes, and providing shared context for learners.

Gathering information

Scenarios and simulations can give participants access to sources of information that might assist their decision-making processes. For example, in a simulation on managing change, participants take over the life of a leader in a building or district office. In the story, the other stakeholders in the simulation include the leader’s team and/or staff, the Board or District (bosses), teachers, parents, students, etc. At any point in the decision-making process, participants can

  • call a meeting with their teams in order to get their feedback on any particular issue
  • walk around the building to access the “grapevine” and get a sense of what is happening
  • call their respective stakeholders to discuss a problem or to simply touch base
  • This simulation allows participants to obtain information that will help them address the problems and decisions facing their simulated companies. The many choices for interaction offered in the simulation reminds participants that they may not always know all the answers, but that the information they need to optimize their decision making is usually within arm’s reach

Balancing outcomes and processes

Another issue that is both a cause and effect of mindlessness is what is referred to as outcome orientation, which is prevalent in the business world. One of the interesting paradoxes that managers face lies in planning for the long term and managing for the short term with respect to testing and external expectations. This orientation has caused many leaders to be totally focused on outcomes without any concern for process “as long as it gets done.”

To address this lack of consideration for process, in student achievement for instance, scenarios can be designed such that the variables in the skills report are what drive the quantitative results. In fact, in some simulations, participants do not ever see a formal instructional report within the simulation. The idea is for them to understand that the process that will consistently drive results and improve outcomes.

Providing common reference points

Another benefit that scenarios provide is a shared context for participants. Individuals or groups who face a particular decision after participating in a simulation may enjoy a common reference point or context. This shared context opens the lines of communication between the individuals in the decision-making process, allowing them to form a common understanding of the issue at hand and how it can be resolved.

Simulations for Social Learning and Shared Experience

Playing simulations in teams increases their power for professional development dramatically because of the social learning aspect of the deployment and the opportunity for individuals to benefit from the shared experience with their peers.

As human beings, we are, at our core, habit forming creatures and have a tendency to seek out the most comfortable way to get things done and stick with it, even when it may not be the best approach.

Along these lines, human beings are also social creatures and crave contact with others. Therefore, when simulations are delivered to groups/teams, it provides an opportunity to harness both aspects of being human to provide for a highly engaging and developmental experience. By doing simulations in groups, participants are able to enhance the benefits of this approach through the engagement of Social Learning and the opportunity for shared experience. Participants can have their biases challenged, in a non-confrontational way, as they work with their peers to make decisions in a collaborative manner. Having the opportunity to hear others’ perspectives on issues and to work towards consensus to make decisions help to improve judgment in an organic and fun manner, and opens up the opportunity for ongoing discussion and collaboration to help establish a more robust learning culture in the district or building. 

About the author

Ken Spero is CEO of SchoolSims (formerly Ed Leadership SIMS), whose objective is to use computer based simulation to build resilience, leadership skills, and decision-making capacity in large numbers of Educators and Administrators. He has been in the simulation field for more than 30 years focusing on how to capture and deploy experience in an efficient and scalable manner to enable the adage that “Experience is the Best Teacher.” Ken earned his MBA from Columbia University and his undergraduate degree in Management Science from Case Western Reserve University.