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Student Instructor

Teaching Model Diplomacy at Richard Montgomery High School

Brian Donlon's class
Brian Donlon's class

Who: Brian Donlon, high school teacher of International Baccalaureate (IB) Global Politics and American Government courses


What: Multiple cases including Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cyber Clash with China, Dispute in the East China Sea, and Economic Crisis in Europe


Where: Richard Montgomery High School, Rockville, Maryland


When: Brian uses Model Diplomacy cases throughout the school year


Why: “I love kids and I love social studies. I have an ability to get kids to think though the issues of the day.”

How did you first hear about Model Diplomacy?


I discovered the Council on Foreign Relations when I began teaching a Global Issues elective course at my school. I first heard about Model Diplomacy from the CFR Campus Bulletin email. I receive the Daily News Brief as well.


It was a great resource for me as I developed the content knowledge necessary to teach the course. My students use the CFR website for the many research projects we complete during the school year. Model Diplomacy appeared shortly thereafter my school initiated an IB Global Politics course. It is a natural fit for an advanced class focused on global issues.


What interested you about Model Diplomacy?


Model Diplomacy asks students to engage in strategic and extended thinking. In addition, students have to work as a group to solve a problem. Each year I am trying to focus more of my instruction towards student-centered project based learning. I like how each Model Diplomacy scenario is a problem with no easy solution. I’m always amazed that the kids are ready to jump in. Once we have worked on some background knowledge, they will debate, look at different policy options and, more than anything, invest themselves in the issue, which to me is what education should be about.


How did you prepare to use the cases with students?


Students usually have some sort of reading and written assignment to build a foundation and basic understanding of the featured country and international issue. Many of the articles included in the Model Diplomacy cases assist in this goal.


I also use other sources like the Close Up Foundation’s Current Issues, and some reading from Brown University’s Choices. I assign the background reading for homework within a 2 to 3 day window before the simulation. Sometimes, I add a day and a half of lecture to lay the foundation as well.


Including video brings the topic to life a little more. I usually use videos from news outlets or the PBS series Great Decisions. Students need to have this foundation to successfully participate in a Model Diplomacy simulation.


What were your students’ reactions to the simulation?


My students love it! There are many passionate discussions on how to respond to the scenarios presented. All my classes are usually 25 to 32 students, so I break them into groups of 5 and usually reduce the number of roles. Instead of one large class National Security Council meeting, I have several going on simultaneously. I let the students choose their own role, but since I do several cases each year, everyone has to play the president at least once and have the chance to be the decision maker. When we’re all done, each group has to give an account of what their group discussed, explain their decision, how they arrived at the decision, and defend it.


The smaller group approach allows each student to demonstrate a higher level of responsibility for their role in the simulation. Students are able to dig deeper and invest in the role, which makes them more accountable, not only to me and the assignment, but to the other kids in their groups.


If you use this approach, laying the foundation before the simulation is important, as the teacher cannot be in multiple places at one time, and you are putting more responsibility in the hands of the students. You really have to make sure they know the material and the expectations. Also, for breaking news or flashpoints in the simulation, I make handouts and pass them out to the groups at the same time. Often times the students are working towards a resolution, and then when I hand out the flashpoint, they say, “You just messed us up!” And I respond, “Well, this is how the real world is and you have to adjust to it.”


The other big thing; everyone comes prepared. If students have prepared they will do a good job and the simulation will go well. I grade more on preparation than the actual simulation.


What were the learning outcomes for your students?


Understanding the dynamics of the issues and countries presented, but, I also strive to teach students real world skills such as; critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, the ability to think on their feet, effective communication, the ability to access information, curiosity, and imagination. I am a big fan of Tony Wagner, who writes a great deal about education being less about gaining knowledge that can easily be found in an internet search, but about student learning skills that will allow them to innovate in the workplace. These students will be the voters and decision makers of tomorrow, and I shouldn’t tell them what to think, but give them the background to understand the big debates.


What makes Model Diplomacy a good fit for International Baccalaureate (IB) courses?


IB Global Politics is a very new course that is still taught in a small number of schools. The course is built around four major areas; power, human rights, development, and conflict. When I look at Model Diplomacy, you could easily fit all those cases in at least one area of the course.


IB courses stress the learning process and I want students to have the opportunity to immerse themselves in their areas of interest. Model Diplomacy is a true partner in that process. It fits from both a content and learning philosophy perspective.


I have also used an adapted version of Model Diplomacy for my standard American Government class. I use the same scenarios, but I print out some of the relevant documents, articles, and instructions. Once again, students enjoy it because they can invest in the activity, and it provides an opportunity for extended and strategic thinking.


What advice would you give to an educator interested in doing their first Model Diplomacy simulation?


I would advise other educators to jump right in. Your students will help you work through the kinks and Model Diplomacy allows flexibility. The simulations can be structured to run for a week or a month. It all depends what you want to do. I have been using these simulations for over two years now, like all instructional activities, I am still adapting and revising to fit my course and my students.


Are there other CFR resources would you recommend to educators and students?


I would recommend the CFR Daily Brief and many of the articles and resources on CFR.org. I am always finding new things to incorporate. It is a great resource for students, especially the backgrounders.

Questions or comments? Please contact us at modeldiplomacy@cfr.org.