A taste of virtual leadership

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Chris Fautley sees national politics and ethics in action

A president's hardest task," reflected Lyndon B Johnson, "is not to do what is right, but to know what is right." Students can discover what he meant when they use President for a Day, an interactive CD-Rom from Damaris Publishing that enables them to run a debt-ridden "Third World" country. In fictional, newly independent Mobesi, potential presidents are required to make key ethical and economic decisions that will dictate the country's future - and face the consequences. Julia Symons of Damaris says that although President is aimed at sixth-form RE students it will also benefit students at key stage 4, teaching them how countries get into debt.

To ensure realism, input was sought from the World Bank, economists and teachers; research also revealed that students, particularly sixth-formers, are indifferent to Third World debt. But by playing the simulation, says Ms Symons, they soon see clearly that governments often have their hands tied and lack the freedom to make realistic decisions. This understanding will encourage students to question their decisions from an ethical perspective.

Full video and sound are used, and before each decision is made a special aide advises players on the possible ramifications of the available options. To help, three special advisers each explain why their own favoured proposal is best for the country. Then the choice has to be made, and the special aide updates players on the consequences of their action. The simulation is divided into four stages, each punctuated by discussion questions that vary according to the decision made. It concludes with advice on how students can help with similar issues in the real world.

As President for a Day can be played individually, in group sessions or by whole classes it is suitable for schools with just one PC or an entire computer suite. Group or class sessions are probably more beneficial since they generate more discussion and require students to justify their opinions to one another. One of the first schools to trial the program was Horndean community school in Hampshire, where I watched lower sixth A-level religious studies students put it through its paces. In two small groups, each reached their own conclusion on the issue in question before voting collectively on a course of action.

The president's first decision is what should form the basis of Mobesi's economy. His or her special dvisers argue the "obvious" advantages of rural self-sufficiency; a mono-economy based on one cash crop; or a modern, industrial nation. As for disadvantages - it is up to students to spot them. What, for instance, can go wrong if the West lends enormous sums under the third option?

Already we have disagreement: one group favours the mono-economy, the other the industrialised. Discussion and a little persuasion finally see the latter adopted. Fine, until the simulation's next stage reveals that although the economy was initially doing well, a corrupt official has embezzled a huge amount of the overseas loans. What to do? Borrow more or halt development? Suffice to say the decision to halt development prompted a coup (probably because Mombesians felt let down), following which, consciences were pricked by a range of soul-searching questions. Was industrialisation a good idea? Supposing we had borrowed more? Why do countries like Mobesi want to be like the West?

The more the simulation progresses, the more apparent it becomes that there are no right answers. Angela Smith, Horndean's head of religious studies, feels that the simulation is pitched at just the right level. It fits well into the A-level syllabus, she says, as her students would be looking at it in relation to ethics, decision-making and implications of decisions. She also has no qualms about using it for non-exam RE. "I'd be very keen to use it," she says. "It's good to see a resource that's targeted particularly at statutory, non-exam RE in the sixth form."

President for a Day enables teachers to take a different kind of role, says Angela Smith: "The teacher isn't there leading the information input. You can facilitate the discussion, listen in on what students are saying - how they are responding. It is almost an extra teacher in the room." Thought provoking, stimulating and certain to encourage debate and discussion, President for a Day is a valuable and carefully thought-out RS resource. The only downside is that it will be difficult to drag students away from it. Student Lizzie Curry sums it up: "It makes you think about everyday decisions people and governments have to face. It makes you realise how difficult their job is."

CD-Rom pound;50 + VAT, network licence, (10 users) pound;35 + VAT, Demo CD-Rom pound;1 + VAT, from Creative Teaching Supplies, Garcia Estate, Canterbury Road, Worthing, West Sussex, BN13 1BW. Tel: 01903 604310Web: www.presidentforaday.org


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