Simulations: Getting at Why We Study History

Simulations: Getting at Why We Study History

by Brooke Feldman

Without the ability to travel time and visit distant lands, one of the best ways to engage middle school students in history is through simulations.  I think of a simulation as a historical reenactment, like a high quality History Channel program but done by students in the classroom. Simulations provide students with engaging and rigorous access points, and they can help me meet and integrate the demands of the Common Core literacy and speaking and listening standards.  In this particular simulation I targeted the following standards, but reading standards were also clearly covered:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.4 Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.

An Outline of a Simulation

When I create a simulation, I start with a historical conflict. I carefully select an event that involves a variety of perspectives and has a range of outcomes. I assign each student a role that represents one of those perspectives. For instance, students could be historical figures or ordinary citizens. I also try to assign a variety of ages, races, religions, and genders. The goal is for the students to represent the various stakeholders in the conflict. (W.8.3)

In addition, it is important that students receive high quality resources from which they can make decisions in the simulation. This could include laws, maps, data sets, and fine art.  I prioritize including as many primary sources as possible because I want students to be exposed to firsthand accounts just like the real people they’re simulating. (W.8.7)

Partition of India and Pakistan

For example, my students recently completed a simulation on the partition of India and Pakistan. Each student played a different role in the simulation, from the leaders of the Indian National Congress and Muslim League to everyday Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh men and women (see Partition of India Simulation Roles). Students used authentic oral histories as starting points, and then conducted research to learn more about the time period. (One example of an oral history I used can be found on pages 90-110 of this document) From these sources, students created character biographies and imagined memoirs.  And, then from these perspectives, students simulated the post-colonial debate: what should happen to South Asia after the British Raj?

Below I have embedded one of the files I used to organize the classroom experience, and have provided links to all the files for the simulation beneath the embedded file (or in this digital collection).

Student Work

The two pieces of work that follow illustrate how this particular classroom experience brings the two writing standards as well as speaking and listening to standards to life in the history classroom.  The first is a video of students engaging in the simulation of the debate in class (length is about 16 minutes).  The camera is fixed in the back of the room and students are seated in a large rectangle with a map of the region posted on the whiteboard (visible in the far background of the video).

The second is an example of a biography written by student grounded in their research and from the specific perspective of the role they choose (another example can be found here):

Why Study History

I would argue that the very nature of simulations raise broader question about the study of history.  Will the students need to know the particulars of the South Asian partition crisis in order to be successful in future history classes? While the historian in me shouts “Yes!,” the social studies teacher in me pauses. I think, what do my students really need to know? For me, the greatest output of simulations is the students’ increased ability to explain historical decision-making. For example, at the end of this week’s simulation, students described the challenges of leadership, argued how varying perspectives impact choice, and demonstrated empathy.  Being able to do so shows mastery of the ability to analyze point of view and perspective, to capture that viewpoint in writing, to articulate and justify one’s position, as well as identify multiple conflicting viewpoints.

Students can transfer these ideas to other historical moments. Instead of memorizing the decisions people make, students develop a genuine understanding of how and why individuals make those choices. Isn’t that the point of studying history?

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2 responses to “Simulations: Getting at Why We Study History

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