17 May 2013

Using simulations to understand global politics: The Democratic Republic of Congo

This past Tuesday, our IB Global Politics (GLOPO) class completed the final, major simulation in our study of Peace and Conflict. This simulation was by far our most complex of the year; a multi-party, various-actor, day-long negotiation covering four broad topics centered on ending violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Students worked in either pairs or as solitary representatives of the DRC, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, United States, Belgium, UN (MONUSCO), the African Union, Congo Liberation Movement (MLC), and Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). The basic framework for the simulation was published by the  Public International Law and Policy Group based in Washington D.C. As outlined in their planning document, the students had nearly complete control over the agenda, rules, events, and other dynamics of the simulation.


One of the features of this simulation is that there are no rules, save for the timetable for negotiations. Students were implicitly tasked with defining the parameters of their negotiations. This absence of specific rule sets initially led to near-bedlam in the opening plenary session. As the students enthusiastically represented their country, group, or organization's interests, they found themselves operating in a context where none of them could successfully articulate their points or reach consensus with potential allies. As an instructor, it was wonderful to sit back and watch students wrestle with predicaments of their own making. More importantly, it was inspiring to see the delegates learn from their failures and construct rules for dialoge and relations amongst all of the parties so that more substantive negotiations could occur.


This simulation was an opportunity for students to apply two broad areas of academic literature that they've encountered in this unit. As I've previously written, the GLOPO students have read a good deal on the causes, practices, effects, and solutions to ethnic civil wars. In addition, students took the opportunity to read both primary and secondary resources on the DRC; specifically Gambino (2008) from the Council on Foreign Relations. The fact that students came prepared to the simulation with binders full of UN documents, maps, source material, and then referenced these in their speeches, negotiations, and written resolutions is a testament to how students see the value of problem- and simulation-based learning. I would also argue that this is a preferred pedagogical approach to that of lecture- and worksheet-based learning that is still found in far too many classrooms today. 


Another important facet of the simulation was the way in which students came to appreciate concepts of power and sovereignty, along with the more obvious concepts of peace, conflict, and conflict resolution. As each/pair of students represented a different variety of global actor-states, IOs, non-state actors-their challenge was to at once understand how much influence they had based on their power (hard, soft) capabilities, as well as their individual abilities to set the agenda, negotiate, and to otherwise pursue their chosen interests. For example, students representing the African Union quickly made the correct recognition that their ability to influence the process towards peace negotiations was limited by nearly every party in the negotiation. Consequently, they chose to look to MONUSCO and South Africa's leadership as a way to orient their negotiations. In contrast, student representing non-state actors such as the MLC and RCD found that they could ignore or even challenge seemingly-more powerful governments and IOs because of their perceived power and influence on the ground in the provinces of North and South Kivu. In moments that would make the late E.H. Carr, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Hedley Bull, and (recently) Kenneth Waltz smile from the great beyond, the power disparities and dynamics that the students had to deal with made negotiations particularly poignant as they came to understand that their ideas alone did not always lead to the achievement of their desired outcome.


As an instructor, my favorite part of an simulation is debriefing. After the intensity of discussion, debate, and tribulations of a game or simulation, debriefing offers students the opportunity to reflect and speak about their experiences while it is fresh in their minds. In this circumstance, the students offered an arrangement of ideas to prompts relating to their goals, how other players participated in the process, and even to the nature of the outcomes themselves. This variety was contingent on factors such as their own knowledge of world politics and the position they held during the simulation; and yet each student's rejoinder was sufficiently supported by their experiences. For those of us in the International Baccalaureate world, this "TOK moment" was just another reminder of how knowledge is contextualized, particularly when studying complex phenomena. 

Finally, it certainly goes without saying that no grades were ever a part of this endeavor. Students received feedback throughout the research and planning process; although at this point in the year, it's more a matter of getting out of the way of students so that they can succeed. I also provided feedback during the simulation (minimal) and the debriefing (more substantive). Again, my task as the instructor is to coach and to support students in the learning process   Obviously, constructing a ROLE requires building trust and rapport with students, along with the relevant and challenging resources, scenarios, and other environmental factors that make for a dynamic and meaningful class experience. That said, this is another example of what Dan Ariely sees as the formula for motivation and meaningful work; payment + meaning + creation + challenge + ownership + pride + identity. Providing students with the opportunity to embrace all of these rewards is what made this simulation so successful; I couldn't be more proud of our work.