Dimitrov: Unlocking freedom that engages students

Editor’s note: Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. This is one of a series of stories highlighting teaching excellence at Western.

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Radoslav Dimitrov just throws them in the deep end of some of the world’s most complex issues – and his students love it.

“It’s the glow in their eyes that signals to me how interested they are, how passionate they’ve become,” the Political Science professor said. “It’s that level of attention they give. When they are transfixed for hours on end, I know it’s working.”

This captivation comes from Dimitrov’s classroom negotiation simulations, pitting student against student as they portray diplomats negotiating international treaties on a variety of issues, from climate change to the Iranian nuclear energy program. It has been a particularly effective tool for teaching, with students internalizing their roles to the point they become so engaged it becomes personal.

“They get into the shoes of these diplomats and policy-makers. They get very passionate, very excited,” Dimitrov said. “The simulations run for a long time, maybe two to three weeks, and by the time we’re done, students learn very difficult and technical material about, say climate change, that would be difficult to teach just through lecturing.”

One of the keys to success of these simulations is giving students complete freedom to represent their assigned country and become the decision-makers.

“I set up the parameters through instruction. But once the simulation begins, they have unlimited freedom. They do begin to form the international community. It is that freedom that engages them and motivates them to be deeply involved in the exercise.”

But it’s also important to combine these methods of experiential learning by taking them back to the real world and teaching them what actually happened. Dimitrov, who participates in climate change negotiations at the United Nations (UN), uses his real-life experience to conduct realistic simulations where students follow the diplomatic protocol of the UN and the standard operating procedures through which international negotiations unfold.

“The last time we ran a simulation on climate negotiations, after three weeks of work the students produced, themselves, the text of an international treaty,” he said. “While it is not sufficient to truly make it an exact learning experience, it is very important to follow up with a reality check.”

After the simulation, Dimitrov brings videos he filmed himself at UN Climate Negotiations as a way to see the people they were role-playing in action.

“That works well because afterward they are hyper-receptive to that new information about what happened in the actual history of climate talks,” he said.

Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. It will be dedicated to discussing teaching, celebrating achievement and exploring how to advance the practice towards greater success. Attendees will include higher education leaders, innovators, investors and government policy-makers from around the world.

Dimitrov emphasized it’s key to continuously improve our methods of teaching because “we live in difficult times where the stakes are high” and young people sometimes feel disconnected from the political and social developments that are shaping their lives.

“Finding an effective way to get them deeply and genuinely involved in issues is important. We need this younger generation to participate fully in our lives,” he said. “This is why it is tremendously gratifying to find methods of teaching that succeeds in making the students truly involved and deeply excited. It is also gratifying to see them develop transferable skills they can use in various professions.”