Game-Based Learning

Simulations Can Change the Course of History . . . Classes

June 10, 2014         Updated May 21, 2014
Photo credit: Poughkeepsie Day School via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I went to a Professional Development workshop several years ago with a master history teacher, Eric Rothschild, who spent his career teaching at Scarsdale High School. He was a brilliant workshop facilitator, and I learned more about teaching history in that workshop than in any other professional development experience I'd had up to that point in my career.

He ran a workshop on teaching AP U.S. History, and it was unlike anything I had seen before. He introduced me to the idea of using simulations to teach the AP course, and also to the principle of fostering student ownership, with a strong foundation in historical research.

After taking his workshop, I began to apply his approach to teaching AP European History and found it to be liberating and transformational as a teacher. And my students loved the approach as well.

With each unit of study, I made sure to incorporate an active simulation, ranging from mock press conferences and trials to murder mysteries and dinner parties, from spy dilemmas to mock Survivor games. Once I cracked the code to designing curriculum with Eric's approach in mind, the sky was the limit.

5 Tips for Bringing History to Life

Here are some tips to get started in transforming your history classroom into a simulation-driven, game-based learning environment:

1. Adopting a New (Actually Old) Identity

At the start of a unit, give each student the name of a historical character to portray and become. I would put names in a hat and have them each draw one at random. For high school students, the opportunity to "play" someone else opened them up to historical imagination and freed them from their high school selves. When a student adopted that character's thinking and point of view in one of the simulations, passion and purpose soared.

2. Setting the Scene

Set up the environment so that students will be speaking and debating with each other in the roles of their historical characters and around a framing problem or issue. Ideally, once the conversation begins, as the teacher you can step back and witness student-to-student dialogue and debate.

For example, in an AP European History class, five students can play the roles of artists applying for the position of court artist in a royal household. Other students can play the roles of the royal leadership councilmembers charged with listening to and challenging the arguments of the individual artists who are making their cases. The council can then deliberate and vote on who makes the most compelling argument to be the court artist, utilizing a well-developed set of criteria.

3. A Part for Everyone

Make a space for each student to play an active role. Even the quietest, most introverted student, given the opportunity to play a personality from history, can step up and into the opportunity to speak from that person's perspective.

4. Background Checks

Bring in a variety of sources for students to analyze and research. By taking on a personality from history, students are then more open to digging into primary sources to find actual quotes for their characters.

5. Historical Reenactment 2.0

Social media is a wonderful connector for these kinds of simulations, with students setting up Edmodo, Schoology, or Facebook pages for their characters in a simulation, figuring out friend groups, posting photos, and speaking from their character's point of view.

Student Engagement Pays Off

The first year I utilized this approach, I was blown away by the responses of my students after they took the AP European history exam. They recalled which of their classmates had played which historical figures and drew upon that knowledge to answer questions on the AP exam. Their recall was phenomenal, and they had internalized the different simulations we'd experienced over the course of the year.

Using game-based simulations can transform history classrooms and, more importantly for middle and high school students, the opportunity to play a historical character is liberating, transformative, and lasting.

Thank you, Eric Rothschild.