American schools are facing a crisis in the lack of professional learning for school leaders.

These leaders are required to be licensed, which usually entails a two-year program at a university or college. However, once they actually begin their careers, most of them will tell you that any further professional learning comes on the job. This vacuum of professional learning among principals and superintendents means many have to stub their toes by learning from mistakes, leading sometimes to grave consequences and almost certainly to less-than-optimal outcomes.

In my research, I’ve worked extensively with simulations that help our school leaders continue their professional growth well past their licensing requirements. Effective simulations present relevant scenarios that offer leaders the opportunity to listen and learn from their peers and to gain experience without risk.

Key findings of my research in using computer simulations for educational leadership professional development (PD) include:

  • Discussions generated by the simulations are the most valuable aspect of the experience, according to participant responses
  • Simulations spurred critical thinking, with participants indicating that the experience caused them to think more deeply about their decisions and their consequences
  • Participants said the simulations helped them to see the perspectives of others
  • Participants said they felt more confident about their abilities to lead during complex situations following their participation in simulations.

Inspiring leaders to examine their decisions

The goal of simulations is to help leaders learn more about themselves. We can’t assume that leaders are going to reflect into why they make the decisions they do. They’re busy, and new challenges are always arising, often preventing them to question why they did something.

When I administer a simulation, every school leader locks in their response before they talk to the person next to them or to the full group. Without that, many will simply agree with others in the room. And, of course, the goal isn’t coming to a “right” answer, but rather to help each person see how decisions play out and to facilitate a conversation about challenging situations with sometimes unforeseen consequences.

Related: How to be a collaborative leader

When leaders lock in an answer before sharing it with their colleagues, it’s staggering to see how many disagreements arise, even among like-minded participants. Those disagreements also lead to an examination of why they didn’t choose the other options, which offers just as much learning as an examination of the path they did choose.

About the Author:

David De Jong, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of educational administration at the University of South Dakota. His research spans educational leadership, innovations in preK–12 education, mentoring, and innovations in technology for teaching in preK–20 education. He can be reached at