Simulations are key to engaging and identifying the differences and similarities between groups, and are often the first step in peacemaking, according to United States Institute Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Instructor Peter Weinberger. These simulations provide students with critical thinking skills which they can translate into action in the field.

October 28, 2010

Simulations are key to engaging and identifying the differences and similarities between groups, and are often the first step in peacemaking, according to United States Institute Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Instructor Peter Weinberger.

“We want students to look at how to work with religious, ethnic and tribal groups when they are in a post-conflict area,” Weinberger said. “In many ways, these challenges are different than general cultural adaptability issues. They require a different kind of adaptation and critical thinking skills.”

In a recent course, “Engaging with Identity Based Differences,” offered through the Academy, Weinberger used simulations in which students interacted with both fictional and real cultures. Watch a video about Weinberger’s approach.

These simulations give students hypothetical situations they might encounter while working in the field. They also bring students together in similar situations, since they come from different backgrounds, including the military, nongovernment organizations, U.S. government agencies, and from international governments.

Most academy students have at least five years of professional domestic or foreign experience. Additionally, the information students include in their applications is used to create a unique class environment for each course, Weinberger said. Each class has the same basic elements but is often adjusted depending on where students will be stationed abroad as well as their personal and professional experiences.

“We want students to be aware of ideas and concepts as well as give them specific things to apply in their work,” Weinberger said. “We elicit what the people need in their work and anticipate how they will use it.”

Weinberger said simulation-based classes allow students to apply experiences and think about future situations. The average course consists of five class days. In each course there are several simulations, some that might last a portion of the day, and others that might only take a small part of the class. In each course instructors try to use frames that students might not have considered before, and in the case of Weinberger’s course, to explain ethnic, religious and tribal elements. Weinberger said. For example, a simulation will be used to illustrate how religion can frame the thinking of the student and the people the student is working with.

“Often a student does not realize that he or she is using ideas in conflict management that are implicitly coming from a Judeo-Christian perspective, because the student does not consider him or herself to be religious,” Weinberger said. “We use simulations for them to understand how these perspectives can shape how they think.”

During a recent class, Weinberger gave students a simulation based off a real-life situation, in which a team of lawyers went to Nepal to advise local people how to resolve differences following the recent civil war. Although they did not consider themselves overtly religious, the lawyers suggested the Nepalese set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to discuss human rights abuses and other grievances in a public forum. Their proposed model was similar to the one used in South Africa. The Nepalese were not enthusiastic about these Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, and said, “Culturally, we are a Hindu country. We do not believe in this kind of forgiveness and reconciliation. We believe in karma.” The lawyers did not initially realize that the notion of reconciliation—in the way it was applied in South Africa—was an idea with heavy Christian meeting. After input from their Nepalese partners, the names of the TRCs were changed to reflect the beliefs and values of the Nepalese people. In a scenario like this, students would be asked to pull out the main themes expressed, and then apply them to other issues. In this case, the simulation themes include being able to adapt a specific concept to a particular religious group. Other examples would be used to understand different ethnic and tribal groups.

"I, as an instructor, learn new things every time,” Weinberger said, “I then apply these ideas to future classes. Every student will face different situations; our goal is to give them the skills they need to think about these situations in a new context, and think and act on their feet.”

For each class, Weinberger also uses a “fictional country” simulation. In this simulation, the country has factors similar to existing countries—like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Sudan—but also has elements that the student will not have encountered before, such as cultures or religions. Weinberger said he uses this technique because he wants students to focus on learning new ideas and skills, and to think outside their personal experiences.

“If we give them a country they have been to before, they will be more likely to revert back to what they did in the past,” he said. “Our goal is to use a fictional case so that they don’t relive a success or failure in a particular country.”

Weinberger said the course is not only a resource for the students, but the students are resources for each other. Eun Lee, an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, recently attended one of Weinberger’s classes in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan in December. He noted how the class helped him to change his perspective on the work he will be doing abroad.

“I really learned a lot from this course through dynamic discussions with fellow participants, and the role play exercises/simulations. Interacting with participants from different walks of life challenged my way of thinking, and ultimately, helped me refine my thoughts and opinions,” Lee said.

These simulations provide students with critical thinking skills which they can translate into action in the field. Lee added that what he took away from the class “will better help me understand the obvious and hidden characteristics of the local/district populace, and most importantly, help me assess the potential implications on what our forces do (and not do) when interacting with them.”

Learn more about Peter Weinberger’s next academy class, “Cultural Adaptability in Complex Operations,” at USIP’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

*Photo:  Peter Weinberger’s recent Academy class.  Courtesy of Mimi Wiggins Perreault

 

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