Fighter Pilots and Educators – The common bridge of simulation based learning

Fighter Pilots and Educators – The common bridge of simulation based learning

My WizIQ Story

We all love playing games – especially the ones based on simulations. And what about Wolverine practicing the art of fighting the bad guys via computer-based simulations in X-Men – we all loved that! Time and again, it has been proved that there is no teacher better than practice.

And there is no practice better than simulation based practice – a belief that fighter pilots, oil drilling companies and many more firmly believe in. It’s time that educators across the globe did so too.

Ken Spero, CEO of ELS and a veteran in developing and incorporating computer-based simulations, will conduct  a webinar on October 28, 2015, where he will discuss the what, the how and the why of simulation based learning.  We thought of asking Mr. Spero to spare some time and answer a few questions on simulation based learning for our readers. Here’s what Mr. Spero had to say.


  • You have spent 25 years developing computer-based simulations. Tell us about your overall experience.


Experience is the best teacher. This age-old adage is universally accepted. Unfortunately, organizations have neither the time nor the budget to allow their people to learn through the school of hard knocks. Simulations offer the opportunity to capture the necessary experience into a more deployable format and allow participants to gain experience without the bruising, in a safe environment. In essence, they can “Fail Forward”. The combination of content, context and time provides an opportunity for participants to engage with the issues both intellectually and also emotionally – allowing for greater depth in the processing.

In experience design, it is the experience itself that is important, not whether the participant gets it right. When you look at the most powerful lessons you have learned, most often you will find it was driven by a failure. When we face a new situation, we typically take guidance from an initial “gut reaction” response to what we perceive. From a layman’s perspective (no science), somewhere in our brains, we sift through a portfolio of experiences and search for relevant or applicable instances where we have previously seen this kind of thing. We then garner some insight into the situation we are facing and take action.

What happens when the experience portfolio is empty? For example, if a teacher has recently a leadership component to their responsibilities (a teacher leader or administrator), there are not going to be a lot of  leadership experiences in the portfolio. In fact, the experiences that are in the portfolio from managing in a classroom may actually be counter to what is actually appropriate and effective relative to administration. What made for a good decision as an individual contributor could be a bad one from a leadership perspective. This is where a simulation experience can be very effective. By playing through an experience of leading and dealing with coaching issues or difficult conversations, participants are able to deposit relevant and application oriented files into their experience portfolio that can be called upon in real-life. When playing the simulation, participants get to practice their decision making and critical thinking skills. By choosing from amongst the decision options they are presented with, they gain experience through judgment. Given the contextual nature of the challenge, the experience portfolio can inform their decision but not dictate it, and learners still need to think critically about what is appropriate in a particular situation.

Branching simulations manifest as a form of “choose your own adventure” exercise where the participant is placed into a series of scenarios in which they are challenged with 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, sales, 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.


  • What role can computer-based simulations play in enhancing the way people learn?


We all know that experience is the best teacher. However, schools and/or districts today simply don’t have the time or the wherewithal to allow their people to learn through the “school of hard knocks.” So, simulation provides experience and provides it in a context where the participants are forced to think critically and make decisions. Then they have the opportunity to experience the consequences. Simulation is about capturing and deploying experience, primarily personal experience but in a Social Learning context, and that’s where this approach can be the most powerful.


  • How would you compare computer-based simulation with other teaching and training methods?


In the realm of Portfolio Development, it’s important to distinguish between instances where instruction is sufficient or where experience is required. When it’s really process-oriented, trainingncan be a very effective tool. However, when the application of skill requires context and depends on the nature of the people with whom you’re interacting, those are the times where experience is going to be more effective as a tool for teaching than just straight-forward instruction. When we get into providing or “manufacturing” experience, it allows you to leverage the power of storytelling. A good story can be extremely engaging and people end up seeing themselves in the story as it plays out. They frequently confess that they “felt” the consequences. For example, the Harry Potter books. There were seven very lengthy books, but people read them because they became engaged by a good story and clearly recall significant elements. Similarly, the power of relevant stories in a familiar K-12 leadership context, with realistic decision points and relevant consequences, find their way into the experience portfolio and are readily retrievable during their day to day challenges.


  • Fighter pilots and educators have completely different occupations. What do you think educators can learn from fighter pilots?


As with fighter pilots, simulations provide participants with an opportunity to gain experience and practice doing the activity they are tasked with in a safe environment so they can do what may come naturally and deal with the consequences. This is a more organic approach to development and change. This can happen through the following:

Enable “Failing Forward” scenario – provide opportunities for students to “fail forward,” or practice new skills and behaviors in a safe environment without fear of the repercussions of failing.

However, nobody likes to fail, so even though it is risk free there is still the opportunity for emotional engagement. By having the opportunity to experience failure, learners can build the capacity to fix their mistake as they would in the real-life situation.

They promote Critical Thinking. Critical thinking is itself an objective. Rather than providing a set of instructions for mindlessly performing a certain task, well-designed scenarios require participants to fully understand the situation they are facing, evaluate it, identify possible responses, and choose the most appropriate solution. When the participant engages in critical thought and makes a choice, in that moment the learning objective of critical thinking has been achieved.

They Accelerate Time. One of the key limitations to learning from our real life experiences is that the consequences do not always unfold right away ; so, it hampers our ability to connect the consequence to the action.

Simulations allow the designer to accelerate time so that the learner can make a decision, implement it, and experience its consequences all within the same exercise.

They Trigger Our Memories. Scenarios are effective in triggering retrieval because they place students into a context similar to their own.


  • Share an interesting real life incident where computer-based simulation really turned things around for an organisation or individual and addressed learning needs in a unique way.


I did a scenario-based simulation for a pharmaceutical company that had been cited for a compliance infringement, and needed its employees to go through mandated compliance/ethics training. Typically, as you can imagine, any type of compliance training that is mandated is not going to be the most interesting activity. Given that, the client took a holistic view of the challenge. They  felt that the infringement was indicative of an underlying behavioral problem in their company, and not a knowledge driven one. The problem was that employees had to deal with ethical issues, and decisions they were making that seemed like “the right thing to do” could actually be illegal. It was not enough to simply ‘tell’ them what was right and wrong because there was a strong chance that they would continue to make the wrong decisions out of both habit and moral inclination. Therefore, the client decided that a scenario-based simulation was called for, which would both be engaging and address the underlying behaviors. In the simulation, one of the scenarios that we developed became affectionately known as the “Mother-in-Law Scenario.” In the scene, as the simulation character, you are a salesperson and your mother-in-law actually takes the medication that you detail. She informs you that she has lost her medical coverage and has run out of her meds. Knowing that you carry samples, she asks you for some. The choices in our design were a simple “yes” or “no” with some description included. It is illegal to give her samples, as only a physician can prescribe and provide access to medication; however, it is your mother-in-law, and she is in need. What do you do? This is an example of how even relatively complex challenges can be presented in a relatively simple scenario that utilizes basic design principles to engage the student. What was so compelling about this experience was that:

  1. Participants were so engaged with and so enjoyed doing the simulations, that they actually were looking forward to the upcoming compliance modules they were going to need to do in the subsequent years.
  2. The ‘mother-in-law’ scenario provided the further benefit of being a memorable shared experience across the sales force which resulted in a situation where if you were to start a conversation with any sales person from that company anywhere in the country, by mentioning it, you could immediately engage them in a meaningful business conversation. The experience helped to create an interest and openness to development that the company was able to tap into to further enhance their capabilities.

Learning through experience, as Mr. Spero has continuously advocated, is the best way of intuitive learning. And it’s quite a bit of fun! So, if your interest is piques by the world of simulation based learning, do not forget to join Mr. Spero’s webinar on October 28, 2015.

Saurav Prakash

As Oscar Wilde said - The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. My life and work is dictated by this dictum. Travelling opens your mind, reading fills it and cooking - well provides the fuel for the two.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.