This article presents an educational action research study examining how one online, classroom-based role-play simulation offers middle school students the opportunity to strengthen their agency and voice. The Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) is a web-mediated simulation designed for middle school classrooms where students take on roles of various characters throughout the world, history and literature to address an imaginary court case. JCAT is meant to develop students’ skills in writing, critical thinking, perspective-taking, historical empathy and communication, as well as subject literacy in social, historical and cultural contexts.
Our research question focuses on how JCAT further encourages and supports the middle school students’ agency and voice. We examine how students exercise their agency and voice both in the online environment and in accompanying classroom activities. As an educational action research study, we focus on simulations in which at least one of the authors was a participant, and also pay special attention to how our findings can enhance future simulations. Findings suggest that students constructed knowledge of democratic ideals and were able to exercise their agency and voice specifically, both in the online environment and in accompanying classroom.
The study employs both inductive and deductive qualitative data methodologies, rooted in an educational/practitioner action research stance. The goal of such a stance is ‘the joint construction of local knowledge, the questioning of common assumptions, and thoughtful critique of the usefulness of research generated by others both inside and outside contexts of practice’ (Cochran-Smith and Lytle 2009, p. 2). Each of the authors served as a mentor in the simulation, concurrently maintaining the roles of researcher and practitioner. As participants in the simulation, we possessed contextual insight into the experiences had by other participants, and because we were also mentors, we could access all areas of the website, enabling us to see the overall activity in the simulation at a deeper level. It was this positioning that gave us our original perceptions of student agency and voice occurring within the game that, combined with our initial coding, prompted our question for this part of the overall study.
Implications and action
The ideas expressed denote a strong desire for students to actively engage their voices and to exercise greater control over the conditions of their learning. JCAT creates a safe and democratic space where students are encouraged to speak out, partake in community inquiry, and respect different ideas and opinions, all in the safety and structure of a mediated environment. The data illustrates that JCAT creates generous opportunity for students to exert agency and voice in their learning, through their own voices and through the portrayal of their characters, both online and in the classroom. The pleasure and controversy within the simulation invites increased participation in the unfolding of the drama and sparks genuine feelings of purpose and motivation, both online and behind the scenes.
The findings from this study suggest that JCAT can serve as a model for other online historical and cultural simulations, as well as for general classroom practices and curriculum aimed at supporting student agency and voice. As more innovative experiences are provided in schools, and as educators continue to listen and respond to students’ insights, the possibilities for this type of learning are wide-ranging. These learning experiences offer students a chance to increase confidence in their abilities to understand and interact with others, and be empowered to voice their ideas and act with intention and purpose. Such learning opportunities can enable them to fully participate in our democratic way of life, in both the protected spaces of schools and beyond.