Geopolitics in the Classroom

By Oriane Falkenstein and Jeff Stanzler

The Arab-Israeli Conflict (AIC) Simulation is a character-playing simulation, designed to plunge middle school and high school students into the dynamics of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Students portray leaders of stakeholder nations, and interact with country teams based in schools around the world, and with university student mentors who help them to act realistically, and who seek to support them as they pursue their nation’s strategic goals. 

In this article, two participants in the simulation describe their experiences on different sides of the simulation. Oriane Falkenstein (teacher and simulation facilitator at Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto, Canada) and Jeff Stanzler (AIC project director based at the University of Michigan School of Education) describe how the simulation engages their students.

Oriane: Each school year my Grade 8 students participate in a challenging simulation involving world issues and current Middle Eastern affairs. They portray national leaders, and their work moves from individual research to group work as part of country teams, as they are encouraged to brainstorm, think creatively, and step into the shoes of an actual diplomat, in order to begin to see the perspective of their assigned country. 

In reality, students get a real taste of the world of diplomacy. They learn to recognize and appease their allies, create new alliances, ward off their enemies, and correspond in political language by sending communiques and crafting press releases as they follow up on the goals they set initially. Their proposed press releases need to be approved by their National Security Advisor (NSA), who strives to get his/her group thinking critically, and to better understand the consequences of their actions.

By the end of the simulation, I can say that students come away with a deeper understanding of how global politics work, and a far better appreciation of how complex the issues are in the Middle East. Students often begin their planning on a superficial scale, but with guidance they learn to delve deeper and provide clearer reasoning, and they learn to break down issues with examples and to support their actions. Their written submissions often reflect that they are on the road to becoming stronger critical thinkers.

As a facilitator I “travel” between country tables in my classroom, encouraging my students to consider and elaborate on the advice offered by their NSA, reminding others to be a little more cautious in their approach and not to give away too much information in their press releases, or to consider more carefully the consequences of an action they want to take.

Jeff: As the young “diplomats” begin learning about the leaders they’ve been assigned to portray, and start investigating the interests of the country or organization they’re representing, the university students serve as mentors to the younger students. The college students, serving as NSAs for the various nations, offer feedback on the work of their mentees, both in terms of the realism of their work (fidelity to the political interests of the country they are representing) and in terms of the cogency and persuasiveness of their written work, and how that work speaks to their intended audience.

The NSAs also guide the overall “story” of the simulation, taking student ideas and initiatives and weaving them into an unfolding narrative designed to capture the imagination of the students, to give them a palpable window into the complexities of the diplomatic process, and to frame the unintended consequences of actions to which the diplomats must all then respond.

In the bigger picture, the university students consider what it means to support the learning of others. They must take stock of what they themselves try to do in their own written work, and what they value in the thinking and writing of others. Having identified some of this, they must then consider how to convey their beliefs in the form of support, challenges and questions that they offer to the diplomats, asking themselves what it really means to write persuasively or to think strategically, so they can better communicate with their mentees.

This work must be coupled with a sincere effort to see things through the eyes of the diplomats, to appreciate their thinking and to try to honor it. This exercise of empathic imagination is important on its own terms, but it is crucial in a setting where the university students must look for the naïve ingenuity in the ideas put forth by the diplomats. For example, Oriane’s European Union diplomats were presented with an initiative by the Russians to establish Jerusalem “as its own sovereign and neutral nation,” as a move towards reaching a two-state solution. Plausible in the real world? Of course not. Inventive, out of the box thinking? Absolutely. But how would the EU respond? Let’s have a look:

I remind my students of the significant challenge that student diplomats take on, and to look diligently for signs of progress, like the measured and realistic statement above made by the EU in response to the Russian initiative. They come to learn that, given a compelling invitation and some focused encouragement, students will often surprise you with what they’re able to do.

Oriane: I see huge growth in the thinking and actions of my students in a very short space of time, and this is likely the only class where discussion and argument overflows into the hallway at the end of the period!

I feel privileged to be part of this simulation each year. It is truly a golden opportunity for any teacher who wants to challenge her students and to provide them with real thinking skills and a taste of real-world issues.

Oriane Falkenstein is a faculty member at the Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto, Canada.

Jeff Stanzler is a faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Education, and is also on the faculty of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI).

The Arab-Israeli Conflict simulation runs twice a year, starting in September and again in January. Participation is free of charge, and more information can be found at: https://icsmich.org/book/arab-israeli-conflict-simulation/ or via email at: stanz@umich.edu