March 29, 2021

No. 4 — Simulators

I remember the silver bottle caps piled on the ground. The pitcher threw them towards the strike target while my older cousin would attempt to hit them with a broomstick. It went on for hours and I remember the street ended all covered up with sparkles of Coca Cola, Sprite, and Fanta. At the time I didn't get it, it was very difficult to actually hit a flying disc. But now I do: my cousin, who went on to play baseball with the national team, was setting up his very own simulator.

Scenario 1 —  Imagine this: You leave your stuff in the locker and start to get ready to practice. Your coach and your teammates already are in the baseball field. Although you're all teammates, there's a sense of competition. After all, just some of you will make it to the national team. Tiny mistakes can contribute to being left out. Want it or or not, you're really conscious of fulfilling your coach's expectations. You strive for perfection. You feel a little constrained.

Scenario 2 — Now imagine this: you're playing in your front street. This is (literally) close to home so you feel you're in a familiar space. There are no coaches yelling. Just you, a broomstick, and a bunch of bottle caps. There's no sense of competition. Tiny (and big) mistakes are expected, after all, you're trying to hit a tiny object at a very high velocity. There are no expectations to be fulfilled. You strive for repetition. You feel like yourself.

I've noticed that these two types of scenarios exist with other types of learning experiences, too. Simply substitute "coach" for facilitator or teacher; "teammates" for participants or classmates; and "being left out" for saying something wrong, or flunking a class. It's basically the same. And usually, when learning something new, we spend a lot more time on Scenario 1.

Learning to fly in a kid's toy

In the winter of 1934, pilots in the U.S. Army Corps (the military's most skilled, combat-ready-air-men) were dying in crashes. This didn't happened because of war. They were simply trying to fly through winter storms delivering the U.S. mail. Then came Albert Link Jr., the son of a piano and organ maker. Link fell in love with flying, but at the time, the classes were expensive and ineffective. An instructor would take you up in the plane and if after a series of loops and rolls you didn't get sick, that's it! You had the capabilities of becoming a pilot. As you would expect, this system didn't worked very well. By 1934, the Air Corps had endured 66 crashes or forced landings. Twelve army pilots had died while flying the mail.   

Link borrowed some pumps from the organ factory and built a device that had the key elements of a plane into a space the size of a bathtub. It had a tiny tail, an instrument panel, and an electric motor that made the device roll and pitch in response to the pilot controls. It even had a small light on the nose that lit up when the pilot made an error. Link's simulator (later called the Blue Box) had an eye-catching advertising: "Learn regular flying and instrumental flying in half the time of regular training and at a fraction of the cost".


Early Link simulator at Freeman Field, Seymour, Ind., 1943

You can tell how the story goes... He failed miserably. People laughed at his simulator the same way a skilled baseball player will laugh at you if he saw you hitting some bottle caps. Link ended up selling fifty simulators to amusement parks and penny arcades.

But when the Airmail Fiasco hit during the winter, pilots started to grow desperate, and in one of the first recorded instances of nerd power trumping military tradition, the officers understood the simulator's potential. 

What does Link's simulator and my cousin's kit of bottle caps and broomsticks have in common? They allow to practice more deeply, stop, struggle, make errors, and learn from them. They both provide an alternative to fail (and therefore, learn) cheap and fast. They remove the pressure of learning something new.

What if you could design a learning experience that will help students the same way that Link's trainers helped pilots? A learning experience that looks more like Scenario 2 above?  A learning experience that feels familiar, cooperative, where mistakes are OK, and the stakes are low? The good news is that you can do it through small changes.

How to build your own learning simulator

A flying simulator is something you can see and touch. For learning experiences (even more if they're online), you need to be creative. Try to start from Day 1 and set the tone. Let your students know that this is just a simulator. Use storytelling to convey what that means. 

After making it explicit that they are in a simulator, make sure to include the parts and pieces that make up the machine:

  1. Simulators are for learning (without embarrassment or guilt). Tell your students to forget pressures and expectations, and to focus on the task at hand (depending on your learning experience, it can be participating in today's dialogue, contributing to group work, or creating/submitting something specific). 
  2. It should be low stakes. The cost of being wrong should be close to zero, otherwise, there's no incentive to put yourself out there. Forget grades and penalties for making mistakes. 
  3. Simulators help you change your mind quickly. You have lights, signals, and sounds that help you change your strategy and re-think your options. In your learning experience, this should be translated as feedback. Try to encourage this feedback from all the participants (not just yourself). Make process checks often and help your students see their mistakes.
  4. Allow for repetition. Students will improve as much as they can practice. Give them time to practice.
  5. It’s not supposed to be easy. Learning through a simulator will still be hard (and that’s kind of the point). But it takes the pressure off your shoulders. It allows you to learn deeply without the types of crashes you have in education: embarrassment, low grades, or worse yet: no true learning at all.

Simulators are great practice machines. But if you miss more than one of the parts and pieces above, it probably won't work as effectively. For example, students might be confident enough to start participating in a dialogue (1), but if they're not getting timely feedback, they won't know how to improve (3). Likewise, they might be receiving feedback from the facilitator and from others (3), but if they don't get a chance to practice again (4), they won't be able to correct and make adjustments. 

Once your students have logged many "flight hours" or batted many bottle caps, they will be ready for harder challenges. And here's something interesting: they will not only be better after so much practice, but will also be more confident and less scared of putting themselves out there. And having this kind of people is a fundamental building block of a great learning experience.

It's never too late to start using the simulator's strategy. Actually, try it today! Just mention to your students or your learning experience participants that they're in a simulator, and that it's OK to crash the ship. You will notice how that small change (plus the 4 principles mentioned above) impact the way they approach a challenge.

How it ended

During war time, Albert Link went on to produce over 10,000 simulators (roughly one every 45 minutes!) By the end of the war, a half-million airmen had logged millions of hours. He then built simulators for jets, and even the lunar module for the Apollo mission. 

When writing this post, I learned that the bottle caps and broomsticks game it's actually a big thing. In Dominican Republic, it's called vitilla. The skill and coordination required in vitilla is credited with giving Dominican Major League Baseball players an advantage in hitting and fielding (and it's probably one of the reasons why Dominican Republic is the second country in the world after the United States with the most baseball players in MLB). If you don't drink enough sodas, don't worry, you can always buy your own kit for $69.99 here.

I'm Stefy. I write a newsletter about designing and facilitating learning experiences. Have some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you – drop me a note.

About Stefy

✨Hi! I'm Stefy. Here's where I follow my curiosities and write mostly about learning. Have some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you – ✉️ drop me a note or DM me on Twitter