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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

Special Topic / The Model United Nations: 50+ and Growing Strong

Model U.N. ambassadors experience firsthand the benefits of cooperative learning and the best outcomes of multicultural education.

Instructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
The Model U.N. is a popular experiential learning program that engages students through cooperative learning techniques and multicultural education. Whether they participate in classroom simulations or attend any of the 150 conferences held across the United States and the world, students get caught up in the experience.
This year the United Nations turns 50, and the Model U.N., even older, is also going strong (Muldoon 1995). Begun in 1926 as the Model League of Nations, the program was initially an activity for university-level students. In the 1950s, the approach was recognized as an effective tool for younger students as well. More recently, the program has become increasingly popular in middle schools. Except for a year's hiatus during World War II, the program has been in continuous operation since the 1920s.

Confronting Global Issues

Every year more than 60,000 students from 2,000 middle schools, high schools, and colleges throughout the United States participate in role-play simulations of U.N. meetings. Students enjoy the experience because it challenges them intellectually, involves them in stimulating group activities, and exposes them to other ways of thinking—it's also a lot of fun.
Students are assigned the roles of ambassadors of U.N. member states and, through negotiation and debate, seek resolutions to global problems on the U.N.'s agenda—for example, peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia. Students explore such contemporary issues in the context of other countries' governmental policies. They are challenged to go beyond their personal views and to grasp and communicate the interests of the government they are representing. To do this, they must learn the customs, history, and political nature of the countries they are assigned to represent, as well as the rules and procedures of the U.N. committee or body to which they will be ambassadors.
Model United Nations can be conducted in class or as an off-campus event. Some schools incorporate the program into the social studies curriculum (Johnson 1988), but in most schools it is a cocurricular or extracurricular club.

Learning About Teamwork

Collaborating with other students to tackle relevant issues is a strong appeal of the program. The Model U.N. fits an essential feature of cooperative learning, students working together to accomplish shared goals where students are given two responsibilities: to learn the assigned materials and make sure that all other members of their group do likewise (Johnson and Johnson 1988).
Research demonstrates that for high-level cognitive learning outcomes, such as identifying concepts, analysis of problems, judgment, and evaluation, less-structured cooperative techniques may be more effective than traditional individualistic techniques (Slavin 1989). In addition, cooperative learning promotes higher achievement, greater motivation, more positive interpersonal relations among students, more positive attitudes toward the subject area and teacher, greater self-esteem and psychological health, more accurate perspectives, and greater social skills (Johnson and Johnson 1988). The Model U.N. yields most, if not all, of these results, and probably more.
In most cases, the teacher or adviser organizes students into a delegation based on student interest and experience. Later in the simulation, the delegations form regional caucus groups for negotiations.
On a more complex level, the Jigsaw cooperative learning method can be applied to the Model U.N. In a Jigsaw grouping, each student becomes an expert on one aspect of the unit. After a while, students are arranged into master groups where all experts on the same subject discuss this single subject. The experts then return to their main group and teach their team members what they learned.
The U.N. is similarly organized. Both the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council have subcommittees that focus on particular concerns. For example, the Third Committee of the General Assembly focuses on Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Matters; or the Economic and Social Council has the Commission on the Status of Women. The subsidiary bodies report to the relevant plenary body once agreements have been reached. Delegates spend most of their time working in these subcommittees (or master groups) representing their respective countries. At the end of a meeting, the subcommittees return to the plenary (or main) groups and attempt to adopt resolutions negotiated in the subcommittees.

Learning About One Another

Participation in the Model U.N. also teaches students that they are members of a global community. Through engaging activities that unite students around a common cause, the program is an excellent tool for meeting the objectives of multicultural education. According to James Banks, the major theorists and researchers in multicultural education agree that the movement is designed to restructure educational institutions so that all students, including middle-class white males, will acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to function effectively in a culturally and ethnically diverse nation and world (1993). Banks adds that multicultural education helps all students, regardless of sex or race, “to become more knowledgeable, caring, and active citizens in a deeply troubled and ethnically polarized nation and world” (1993).
The Model U.N. immerses students in the histories, cultures, and politics of other countries. In observing Model U.N. conferences, we've seen students come to question former ways of thinking and often develop broader outlooks. For example, a St. Louis high school student described her experience: Being in the Model U.N. made me feel like I was actually part of our changing world—and I was making the changes. First, I thought that the program would just be arguing and debating and not resulting in any new action. I was so wrong. Model U.N. has given me the courage to speak out about how I feel about certain delicate issues. I hope to continue the program next year and pass more resolutions.
The Model U.N. actively involves students, individually and collectively, in learning. Not only do they study international institutions, pressing global issues, and other places and peoples of the world, but they must also apply their new knowledge, using interpersonal and other important life skills in a real-life simulation of international diplomacy. The experience demonstrates to students the value and importance of learning. And students have fun in the process. Thus, the motivation to do the work comes from within, and the reward, too, is mainly the satisfaction that comes from doing the best one can do.

Join an Enduring Tradition

Many students today have an individualized outlook on learning. Yet when they graduate, they are expected to work as team players. The Model United Nations prepares students for the real world by encouraging them to work together and to respect other ideologies and cultures. And, in the process, it engages them in a memorable learning experience. With the U.N. turning 50 in 1995, why not try out a longstanding educational tradition?
References

Banks, J. (September 1993). “Multicultural Education: Development, Dimensions, and Challenges.” Phi Delta Kappan 75, 1.

Johnson, P. C. (January-February 1988). “The Model United Nations Motivator and Instructional Technique in Geographic Education.” Journal of Geography: 13–16.

Johnson, D. W., and R. T. Johnson. (March 1988). “Unleash the Power of Cooperative Learning.” The School Administrator 45: 21–24.

Muldoon, J. (March 1995). “The Model United Nations Revisited.” Simulation & Gaming 26: 27–35.

Slavin, R. (1989). “Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement.” In School and Classroom Organization, edited by R. Slavin. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

James P. Muldoon Jr. has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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