This page was originally authored by Steffanie Reid (2008).
This page was edited by James Cash (2009).
A microworld is a technology supported learning environment embracing a constructivist philosophy. A microworld environment includes all of the specific assumptions and constraints within a single domain of knowledge, such as Newtonian physics or Euclidean geometry. Microworlds were originally developed so that children could actively explore and build concepts in a specific domain of knowledge unfettered by other domains.
“...creating an environment in which the child will become highly
involved in experiences of a kind to provide the rich soil for the growth of
intuitions and concepts for dealing with thinking, learning, playing and so on.”
What is a 'Microworld'?
A microworld is "[a] representation of some well-defined domain, such as Newtonian physics, such that there is a simple mapping between the rules and structures of the microworld and those of the domain."
Simply put, a microworld is a complex computer simulation designed to react in the same way that the real world would. It is a place where students can explore a new concept without direct instruction from a teacher, where hypotheses can be tested and conclusions drawn.
Microworlds vs. Simulations
It is important to understand how a simulation and a microworld differ. A microworld is a learning environment wherein a specific domain of knowledge can be explored and developed with minimal instruction. A classic example of a natural microworld is a sandbox with its accompanying sand toys; a child needs almost no instruction before starting to explore density and volume concepts with pails and shovels. In Papert's Turtle Geometry microworld, children quickly begin to use LOGO to explore Euclidian concepts using a computational approach. A simulation, on the other hand, can be a highly complex, digital analogue of a real environment, such as a flight simulator. A considerable amount of instruction and learning usually must take place before a user can properly operate within a complex simulation.
The microworld concept first emerged from the AI Lab at MIT in the early 1970s.
The father of educational microworlds is Seymour Papert, a mathematician who spent years collaborating with Jean Piaget on the ways that children think and learn. Papert was specifically interested in the ways in which mathematics could be used to help understand children's' mental processes. As a faculty member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Papert helped found the Artificial Intelligence Lab with Marvin Minsky where he eventually developed the concept for LOGO, a computer language that was the basis of the first microworld.(http://www.media.mit.edu/people/bio_papert.html)
Features of Microworlds
Craig Grasi  has outlined several consistent features found in microworlds:
- A microworld usually takes the form of an interactive computational learning environment.
- A microworld features computational affordances which facilitate thinking and learning.
- The virtual microworld resembles the real world to such an extent that what is learned in the microworld transfers to real life.
- Microworlds are constructivist.
- A microworld is an incubator for knowledge. It is a garden in which powerful ideas (cognitive constructs/intellectual structures) grow -- along side "weeds" that the learner must strive to eliminate by debugging programs.
- Microworlds adhere to a "low threshold no ceiling" philosophy. This means that learning can range in form from learning basics to engaging in research.
- Microworlds emphasize engagement over explanation in education.
Pedagogical Basis of Microworlds
Microworlds are based in the pedagogical philosophy of Constructivism.
... a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own "rules" and "mental models," which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences.
Current Applications of Microworlds
Microworlds have been developed for use in many different instructional settings and subject areas. The following is a small sampling of the scope of their use:
Use in the Workplace
- The U.S. military is currently testing their use for the training of logistics personnel
- Microworlds are used for management training
- In Colombia, microworlds are being used to train Electricity Traders to better prepare them for the competitive marketplace
- In the U.K. microworlds are used as part of the nurses training program.
Use in Education
- The aptly named “microworlds” software is based on Papert’s original LOGO programming language and is used to teach math concepts to students of all ages in school
- Microworlds were researched and produced in a cross-curricular project undertaken by a school in San Diego. The project was adapted to cover all subject areas from social studies to physical education for grade seven students. (Dodge 1997)
- ChemLab is a microworld developed to allow students to safely explore the world of lab experiments. There is a lab book to follow, but students also have the ability to “mess up” experiments, discover what happens when certain chemicals are combines, and learn the uses for and names of the various pieces of lab equipment.
Links for Educators
The following is a list of links to lesson ideas and programs for teachers interested in incorporating constructivist microworlds into their classroom activities:
- Logo Computer Systems Inc. - source of lesson plans and games that follow the constructivist philosophy
- Math Cats - web based microworld applications from Math Cats
- Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.
- Papert, S. (1971) "Teaching children thinking" MIT AI Lab Memos. #247
- Sharples M., Hogg D., Hutchinson C., Torrance S., and Young D. “Computers and Thought: A Practical Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” accessed Feb.20, 2008 from http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/poplog/computers-and-thought/gloss/node1.html
- Rieber, L. P. (1996). Seriously Considering Play: Designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations and games [Electronic version]. Educational Technology Research and Development, 44(2), 43-58.
- Lawler, R.W. (1987). “Learning Environments: Now, Then and Someday,” in R.W. Lawler and M. Yazdani (eds.), Artificial Intelligence and Education, Volume I: Learning Environments and Tutoring Systems. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
- Microworld Simulations: A New Dimension in Training Army Logistics Management Skills, accessed March 1, 2008 from http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB3037/index1.html
- Keys B., Fulmer R.M. (1998) “Executive Development and Organizational Learning for Global Business” Haworth Press.
- Dyner I., et al.(1998) Microworlds for training electricity traders. XVI System Dynamics Conference, Quebec, Canada. Accessed Mar.2 2008 from http://www.systemdynamics.org/conferences/2000/PDFs/franco34.pdf
- Wilford A., Doyle TJ.(2006) "Integrating simulation training into the nursing curriculum" British Journal of Nursing. Accessed Mar.2 2008 from http://hpsn.de/plaintext/downloads/bjnsimulationintegrationukpnci09062.pdf
- http://modelscience.com/, accessed Mar.2 2008