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Scenario-Based Learning: a commonly accepted way to learn

When we introduce a scenario to our students, it can feel like we are doing something radically different. Actually, scenarios have been used successfully in many realms of education for hundreds of years. Museums, apprenticeship programs and law schools are just a few of the places where scenarios are the standard way that students learn.

Modern museums – on topics other then art – use scenarios to achieve active learning. In the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, visitors receive a photo passport card with the story of a child whose life was changed by the events of the Holocaust. The Spy Museum in Washington DC has people participate in a top-secret mission. At the Reagan Library, children play-act being president and decide whether to invade Grenada or not. All of these installations have people actively involved in a scenario in order to learn what it was like at a different time and place.

Apprenticeships have been used continuously in education since the Middle Ages. Working in the job they are training for, the student starts out as just an assistant and gradually takes over the most challenging of projects. These are real-world, totally authentic scenarios that prepare successful workers with all the skills necessary for the job. It would be great if this system could spread beyond just the trades.

In law school assignments, students write the same sort of briefs that clerks and lawyers do. The famous bar exam has a large “performance” section that is scenario-based. For example in a typical assessment from the bar exam, students get a memo from the senior attorney saying that their client has asked for an assessment of the potential liability for a situation like a product defect. Students must provide a memo that addresses the relevant issues and summarizes potential liability.

Lectures have never had a place in law school. The socratic method is favored during classtime and in moot court students read arguments and pleadings from the lower court, and then must plead the same case to the supreme court.

These are just a few of the ways that scenarios have been employed throughout history to teach new skills effectively. Have you come across others? I am left wondering: where did we get off the track and start lecturing?

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