The ICT National Curriculum for ICT says that KS2 children should be taught "to use simulations and explore models in order to answer 'What if ... ?' questions, to investigate and evaluate the effect of changing values and to identify patterns and relationships [for example, simulation software, spreadsheet models]."
Examples of their use within the classroom are numerous – music composition software, on-screen science experiments and on-screen interactive geography diagrams for instance – however it’s easy to overlook the need to actually teach children about their role in the real world and how to realise that they do have their limitations as well as their benefits.
For these reasons I always like to spend some time with Year 3 ensuring that they fully appreciate what exactly simulations are, how to use them effectively and how to evaluate their usefulness (before they move on to designing their own spreadsheet models themselves in Excel in upper KS2). In the old QCA Scheme of Work for ICT, a whole unit of work (6 lessons) was spent on this which, in my opinion, meant a lot of valuable time was being wasted on what is actually quite a simple topic to deliver/understand. Over the years thefefore, I've gradually condensed this down into fewer and fewer lessons until this year when I finally managed to cover all the key ideas in one, concise lesson.
I began the lesson this afternoon by explaining to the children that a computer simulation is a program which attempts to mimic a real-life scenario (unlike a computer game which often has an imaginary setting that you must complete a quest in for fun). They let you trying things out which would be too: difficult, dangerous or expensive to do in real life.
After this, I then let them spend a good half an hour exploring three of my favourite simulations on the laptops:
I prompted them to think about how each was controlled and in what ways it was/wasn't realistic (e.g. by how animated the graphics were), providing a simple worksheet for the more confident children to complete to record their thoughts onto:
Once they had all had the opportunity to try out each simulation and explore the effects of making different choices in them, I then played a 'Fan and Pick' game with them. One of the Kagan Structures for Co-Operative Learning, it involved the children working in groups of four to play a card game to help them consolidate their evaluations of the three simulations. Each group sat around a spinner I had made and took it in turns to rotate it around so that every child had the chance to do each 'job':
As the seats in the classroom aren't aranged in fours, I did allow some groups to sit on the floor (I know many schools that encourage this like here but that's another blog post in itself...) The activity itself seemed to work really well with most groups because it: allowed the children to share their ideas with their peers, encouraged them to do positive listening and gave them more reponsibility to give good contributions than working in pairs would have done. You can download a printable version of the 'Fan and pick' spinner by clicking here and here are a copy of the questions that I printed cut/out for each group:
Finally, to end the lesson, I had a short discussion with the class to find out which simulation they thought was the most useful/effective and why, including referencing back to the reasons why simulations are often used. I also got them to self-assess each other using the 'good, great or super' criteria so that I could see how well their understanding was:
Trying out simulations is always very popular and the children clearly enjoyed the lesson this afternoon. Condensing it into one lesson certainly made a lot of sense and by including the evaluation sheets and the 'Fan and Pick' game I hopefully put some structure into what is otherwise quite a 'light-hearted' topic to teach.