Lessons that Last: Experiential learning in a world of shortening attention spans

Adjusting to the speed of students surrounded by social media is a growing challenge for educators, and competing with the instant gratification of social media to make lasting connections is even harder. Based on conversations with educators in the MCIC community, we’ve found that our interactive role-playing simulation workshops are breaking through the TikTok attention span and helping students build empathy, curiosity and understanding.

This spring, 640 students from 27 Grade 7 classrooms in Pembina Trails School Division took part in the Forced to Flee simulation with MCIC. As they move through the simulation, students role-play through experiences faced by refugees and migrants around the world. Moving through stations including a military checkpoint, a border crossing and a refugee camp, they face recreations of difficult decisions made by families. Groups must decide whether they will stay home or leave, if they should risk waiting for formal processes or flee through smuggling rings, or problem-solve will explain their situation to a border guard who might not speak their language. While the stakes are limited to tokens representing food, health and money, the experience of moving through tough decisions has a lasting impact on students according to Peter Janz, a teacher at Henry G. Izatt Middle School.

“When they started, [MCIC Program Assistant Mia Kirbyson] gave students a story. I find storytelling usually gets a middle school student’s attention quicker than just facts. Coming to the topic with a story and having real life stories made it much more real.”

These real stories stuck with students through the full 70-minute workshop. Janz says “It mattered that each of these things they had to go through were scenarios that actually happened to people and families. One of the kids that I had in my class wasn’t taking it too seriously, so I reiterated that point to him and that really helped him to get it. Like, this is an actual story of someone and what they have lived through. So, the storytelling aspect of it would really be something that I think would help other educators.”

“Look on TikTok, look at their videos (…) They think about it for a moment, then they swipe away and don’t think about it again. I found that with this program, it’ll make them sit down and even ask for a longer time.”

Peter Janz, Grade 7 Teacher

Janz notes that students’ interest in the activity stays high, thanks to the immersive and active structure of the workshop. “It allows them to sit and soak in the information and experience it rather than just view it. I think that was key: experience, and to have them physically move.” He also credits the experiential style of the workshop for lasting student engagement with the topic of refugees.

“In our day and age, the way the kids get information, it’s so fast. Look on TikTok, look at their videos. They can get something that’s so quick. They think about it for a moment, then they swipe away and don’t think about it again. I found that with this program, it’ll make them sit down and even ask for a longer time. We had two [periods,] but my kids were asking such great questions, we lost a lot of time getting into the program because they had so many.”

Their questions stuck around long after the workshop, and found their way into other projects, sparking conversations about human rights in other countries. In an assignment about analyzing regional differences, students made the decision to include human rights and refugees.

“Each class has picked a different region, and we focused on all of the things that we’ve learned this year: things like GDP, quality of life, the geography of the country. We also looked at human rights. We’re creating a science fair type poster board for each region, and some kids have added in: ‘do they have refugees?’ or they’ve added in human rights issues that the country has stood up for or [has challenges with.]”

The power of immersive storytelling and experiential learning to push past a short attention span is increasingly important. Giving students a form of direct experience doesn’t just pull them in to the story, it pulls them in to the content. Thanks to a physically active, interactive and collaborative workshop on refugees, Grade 7 students in Pembina Trails have a better understanding of refugee issues and human rights in the world today.

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