George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Defining Authenticity in Historical Problem Solving

April 5, 2013
Photo credit: Adrienne Curtis Dickinson
Representing historical actors, students vote on what should happen to the land under Germany's control in China after World War I.

At Sammamish High School, we've identified seven key elements of problem-based learning, an approach that drives our comprehensive curriculum. I teach tenth grade history, which puts me in a unique position to describe the key element of authentic problems.

What is an authentic problem in world history? My colleagues and I grappled with this question when we set about to design a problem-based learning (PBL) class for AP World History. We looked enviously at some of our peer disciplines such as biology which we imagined having clear problems for students to work on (they didn't, but that is another blog post).

We consulted a number of sources in research. What did the College Board say? What do the state standards say? We reached out to Walter Parker, the social studies methods instructor at the University of Washington School of Education, to help us clarify our thinking.

We arrived at two ways to think about authentic problems. One I will call the work of historians in the field, and the other was the work of historical actors at the time. We quickly felt a healthy tension between these two ideas.

Living the Decisions

The work of historians involves creating and debating the frameworks for the historical narratives our students use to interpret history. One problem that historians debate is the question of periodization, or how history should be divided chronologically in order to better understand it. We know these chunks of time -- or eras -- by the more familiar labels given them by historians: classical, medieval and modern, to name a few. These debates are highly charged because they are so important in defining what students entering the field should study. For example, should World War I be considered a turning point in world history, or is World War I really a European civil war whose significance as a global turning point diminishes with passing of each decade?

It was exciting to consider that our students would engage in such high-level and rigorous academic thinking. We could think of many meaty questions for them to explore and discuss: What was the legacy of Mongol rule? Is the modern era a time of progress? Even the question, "Is there really such a thing as world history?" However, we wondered, was it realistic to ask students to do the work of historians? Could we prepare them well enough to have these highly abstract but critical conversations? College professors spend years steeping themselves exclusively in their discipline, while our students devote one seventh of their class time to world history. My colleague and I had both engaged students in such debates during our practice, but not in an integrated systematic way.

Our approach to authentic problems came from a different perspective: that of the historical actor and decision-makers. By giving students roles based around a historical problem we could ask them, "What would you do, and why?" This, of course, is nothing new. Teachers have been creating simulations and role-plays to engage their students for generations. We wanted to build a unit or "challenge cycle" around these activities.

Ultimately, we decided that it would be difficult for students to do the work of historians if they had not done the work of historical actors. By "living" the decisions through problem-based simulations, our students would collectively be better prepared to engage in the larger questions that are debated in the discipline of history.

Challenge Cycles

What did this look like in World History? We created challenge cycles based on each of the eras into which the course was divided. Our first attempt at building a PBL challenge cycle took place when we studied the Early Modern Era (1450-1750) and focused on the theme of diplomacy. Students were assigned to empire teams based on their interests, and they played the role of foreign policy advisors. Their mission: to determine how diplomacy could help their empire maintain and expand power. The simulation component culminated in a round of treaty negotiations between empires. We found that while students were energized and came to know their roles deeply, they were not directly engaging in the conversations and debates that historians have.

After we piloted our first PBL units, we built in a day for a debrief discussion explicitly linking the challenge cycle with the authentic questions that historians address. This debrief day also allowed students to drop their simulation roles, which frequently put them in competitive or modestly adversarial relationships with one another. They were free to argue against the position their historical figure would have taken. For example, during our diplomacy challenge debrief, the Ottoman Empire could argue the position of their Spanish archrivals. We also broke down our challenge cycle into components that allowed students to deepen their understanding of their historical actors in relation to others. In our diplomacy challenge, this meant building in a diplomatic reception in which our student diplomats had to toast an empire with which they wanted to engage in trade.

Diplomats and Historians

What kind of comments have we heard from students? Their response has become more positive as we have refined our pilot units. Here is a brief sample from a survey we took on our diplomacy challenge unit:

  • "We all were sort of competing, which made us try harder."
  • "The reception was super neat."
  • "I really enjoyed knowing about my empire, therefore I wanted to learn more about that empire and master it . . . I liked the process: 1st power point, to get to know the empire. 2nd Toast. This process helped me understand the empires. ."
  • "Elaborate more on what actually happened instead of the Socratic seminar [debrief] because I would've liked to know more concrete details."
  • "Remove the reception (I think this could have been a two-week project)."

After a year of designing and testing the curriculum, we have come to understand that some problems and their components feel more authentic than others. Representatives of the early modern empires were rarely gathered together at one reception, and diplomacy is obviously conducted over a longer period of time with changing players. However, the toasts our student diplomats made at that diplomatic reception would not have been out of place at a White House state dinner (although our students' were briefer), and the skills they used in trying to woo a trading partner were just as real.

As we continue to refine this course of study, the healthy tension between the work of the historian and the work of the actor remains, as does the desire to create a curriculum where students can meaningfully engage in both.

Editor's Note: Visit "Case Study: Reinventing a Public High School with Problem-Based Learning" to stay updated on Edutopia's coverage of Sammamish High School.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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