More Like Life Itself: Simulations as Powerful and Purposeful Social Studies

reviewed by Elizabeth Washington - September 23, 2019

coverTitle: More Like Life Itself: Simulations as Powerful and Purposeful Social Studies
Author(s): Cory Wright-Maley (Ed.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1641133201, Pages: 322, Year: 2018
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Cory Wright-Maley’s 2015 article, “What Every Social Studies Teacher Should Know About Simulations,” made me wonder if I had been inadequately (and perhaps inaccurately) addressing simulations in my social studies methods course. In previous years, my students had tended to find the idea of simulations interesting and intriguing, but they were also somewhat fearful. They wanted to be sure about what “simulation” meant, how it should be planned and structured, how it should be managed, and what to do if things got “out of control.” Most importantly, they wondered, what if the simulation turned out to be meaningless? What if it did not engage students or deepen their content knowledge? My students’ questions all made sense to me as intentions, by-products, challenges, and outcomes of simulation activities.

In Wright-Maley, Lee, and Friedman’s chapter in the International Handbook of History Teaching and Learning (2018), the authors conceptualize what “simulation” means within the context of teaching and learning history and historical thinking. They discuss simulations that engage students in interpreting the causes and consequences of historical events and crises, concluding:

Historical simulations and games may provide teachers with tools to accelerate the consequences of decisions in order for students to evaluate the actions of historical

actors. They also can place students in environments that have different rules of order that may be alien to the life experiences of students and can make abstract concepts concrete. In addition, they provide students with artifacts that allow them to test assumptions, analyze circumstances, and challenge any presuppositions they may have about the inevitability of the present in relation to the past. (p. 617)


They also articulate the role that simulations can play in developing disciplinary knowledge, especially in ways that fracture the “inevitable-progress narrative of history” (p. 617).

Cory Wright-Maley’s new book, More Like Life Itself: Simulations as Powerful and Purposeful Social Studies (2019), broadens these ideas about simulations to encompass all of the social studies disciplines. It is poised to become the go-to resource for any social studies educator seeking depth of knowledge about simulations with a useful balance of theory, research, procedure, and practice. The book first demystifies simulations by providing a definition and guidelines that clarify distinctions from other activities that have been conflated or confused with simulations (e.g., role plays or games). It then elaborates on numerous examples of what social studies classroom simulations can look like in various disciplines.

The book comprises an introduction and four parts: “Designing Simulations,” “Implementing Simulations,” “Leveraging Student Engagement,” and “Teaching and Learning with Simulations.” The introduction provides robust conceptualization, a concise historical overview with recent research from the past decade, and connections to the National Council for the Social Studies vision of “powerful” social studies (2016). Wright-Maley clearly explains what makes simulations unique, explaining that they are “pedagogically mediated activities used to reflect the dynamism of real-life events, processes, or phenomena, in which students participate as active agents whose actions are consequential to the outcome of the activity” (p. xii). Moreover, the key aspects of this explanation, verisimilitude, causes and consequences, meaningful decision-making, and teacher mediation, all interact with and depend upon each other if the simulation is to be effective and powerful. Wright-Maley also introduces four aspects of simulations that may be “formidable” (p. xvii) for teachers and teacher educators: lack of professional development opportunities, time-consuming planning that must take multiple contingencies into consideration, flexibility and relinquishment of control, and rethinking of their roles in relation to the curriculum they are supposed to teach. These issues are woven throughout the book and addressed by almost all of the contributors.

In Part One, “Designing Simulations,” Wright-Maley expands on his introduction, addressing how issues of control and fear of chaos, both at a structural and individual level, act as “Simulation Enemy #1” (p. 4); how “control” might be reimagined; and how behavioral economics, psychology, and “choice architectures” might inform simulation design (p. 15). Stoddard, Swiecki, and Shaffer present an “epistemic frame” (p. 22) for engaging students in democratic and media education through a “virtual internship” simulation (p. 24). Girard’s chapter sheds light on the impact of “interpersonal interactions” (p. 36) on two simulations in a high school civics classroom.

Part Two, “Implementing Simulations,” examines both effective and ineffective simulations. In Wright-Maley’s comparative case study of two teachers who regularly and effectively use simulations in their classrooms, he suggests a definition of a “successful” simulation (pp. 87–88) that makes room for their very different approaches to planning, implementation, management, and facilitation of simulations. Bordwell and Virgin address the important issue of teacher professional development by describing a professional learning community (PLC) focused on 7th grade U.S. history simulations as a process of teacher buy-in, inquiry, and reflection.

For me, the trickiest aspect of teaching about simulations, before even talking about the specifics of using them, is making sure that they are appropriate and responsible. The chapter by Dack, van Hover, and Hicks brought to mind a distressed student who came to talk to me about her observation of a U.S. history teacher who had asked her students to simulate being on a slave ship. As one can imagine, and for a variety of reasons, it did not go well. Although I would have liked to see an entire chapter devoted to ethical and potentially controversial issues that may arise in a simulation, Wright-Maley’s introduction and this chapter do a nice job, respectively, of defining a simulation according to rigorous key criteria, conditions, purposes, and outcomes (pp. xii–xiii), and of addressing “problematic implementation” (pp. 64–68) that may lead to silly or disruptive student behavior, trivialization of complex and/or tragic events, and factual inaccuracy. Dack et al. suggest five “guiding questions” for teachers to use in the planning process to determine whether a simulation is “the most appropriate instructional strategy to teach specific content” (p. 68).

Part Three, “Leveraging Student Engagement,” includes Moore’s chapter describing a U.S. Electoral College simulation that seemed to engage students who said they hated social studies. Bizzarro and Gerwin focus on the role an immersive simulation played in helping students who had been academically unsuccessful in other social studies classes to pass the New York State Global Regents Exam. While I enjoyed these studies, I had hoped that Part Three would include more teacher-researcher and researcher-practitioner studies with voices of teachers and students.

Part Four, “Teaching and Learning With Simulations,” has a compelling array of six chapters that illustrate simulations in practice in various social studies disciplines. Parker and Lo describe their guide to the design and implementation of a simulation-based Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics course that offers depth, rigor, and engagement. Rantala and Nokes both contribute chapters on simulations that engage students in historical thinking. Rantala focuses on historical empathy and perspective-taking in master and counter-narratives of Finnish history, while Nokes examines the idea of “historical imagination” (p. 205) in describing a simulation on Indian Ocean trade. Ayers’ chapter on simulating economic activity emphasizes the importance of teachers’ economic pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) in addressing “real world economic dilemmas” such as the national debt and federal budget deficit (p. 223). Gallavan and Webster detail a specific simulation, Barnga, that helps students to develop cross-cultural responsiveness, critical consciousness, and civic competence. Finally, Lawless and Brown discuss how they integrate social studies and science in an online simulation for middle school students to “learn and apply socio-scientific literacies and concepts on an international landscape” (p. 268).

A chapter specifically on formative and summative assessment of student learning from simulations as well as a concluding chapter to tie together key simulation concepts, themes, and guidelines would have been helpful additions to make the book even more useful. Nonetheless, More Like Life Itself: Simulations as Powerful and Purposeful Social Studies provides clarity for imagining, designing, and implementing meaningful, appropriate, and engaging simulations that reinforce the importance of social studies in the school curriculum and the many roles it plays in cultivating democratic citizenship. I agree with Wright-Maley’s assertion that “the practice of including simulations is a formidable undertaking, one that asks teachers to move into spaces of curricular and managerial discomfort, to re-envision their practices, and to orchestrate learning experiences with which they may have limited practice” (p. xix). Wright-Maley and the chapter authors address head-on many of the restrictions on the curricular space for simulations. Fortunately, they capably integrate research and practice to illuminate the promise that simulations hold “to reveal the world and its often-invisible workings to students of all ages” (p. xix).


National Council for the Social Studies. (2016). A vision of powerful teaching and learning in the social studies. Social Education 80(3), 180–182.


Wright-Maley, C. (2015). What every social studies teacher should know about simulations. Canadian Social Studies, 48(1), 8–23.

Wright-Maley, C., Lee, J., & Friedman, A. M. (2018). Digital simulations and games in history education. In S. A. Metzger & L. M. Harris (Eds.), International Handbook of History Teaching and Learning (pp. 603–630). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 23, 2019 ID Number: 23101, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 8:08:27 AM

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