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Student Created Sims as Historical Interpretations

Student Created Sims as Historical Interpretations

Creative Commons License
Student Created Sims as Historical Interpretations by Jeremiah McCall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at gamingthepast.net.

We, as educators, desire our students to take more active roles in their learning and plan for them to acquire the flexible critical thinking skills of the 21st century and beyond. It is well worth considering, then, the role that student designed simulations can play in a history/social studies class intended to promote the skills of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis.

Essentially, providing an opportunity for students to design their own simulations is a variant on the work that should normally take place in history classrooms: students should be trained to evaluate historical evidence and create their own supportable interpretations of the past based on that writing. Papers are generally the primary means to create and present historical interpretations, and this is appropriate to a certain extent since the ability to read and write effectively are hallmarks of a strong education.

Many of the cognitive skills required to write an effective historical interpretations, interestingly enough, are also required to design an effective historical simulation:

  • The ability to analyze and evaluate evidence – One cannot practice history authentically without being able to discern valid from invalid evidence by considering the author of the information and corroborating the information in one source with information from other sources. By the same token, even if a simulation designer relies on others for research, she or he must be able to select valid work from these researchers if the simulation is to be authentic.
  • The ability to contextualize and connect evidence into a plausible interpretation – For a historian, valid evidence forms the building blocks for any valid interpretation of the past. That evidence must be connected and placed into a context for the interpretation to take shape. Similarly, simulation designers must take the facts, as it were, and connect them to form a valid model.
  • Discriminate between the critical and trivial parts of a historical event or process – Both historical interpretations and simulations are simplified abstractions of a reality that is past and impossible to recover fully. Part of the art of the historian is the ability to discern between factors that are truly essential to understanding why things happened as they did in the past and the trivial elements. One of the tasks of the simulator is to recognize that reality cannot be modeled in full and focus upon the essential elements of a process. Of course, what seems trivial to one becomes critical to another in the viewing; so historians and simulators continue at their task.

The ramifications of this overlap in historical skills and simulation design skills have not, so far as I know, been explored in meaningful detail. I suggest that the ramifications are, nevertheless, profound. Since the skills of the historian and the simulation designer are fundamentally similar, students can be taught to master the fundamentals of historical research and interpretation by being tasked with designing historical simulations.

Although time is always precious and no pedagogy should replace all others, there are still tangible benefits to giving students a formal opportunity to design their own simulation games. As noted in the previous article, well-designed simulations allow students to explore the relationship between different factors in history. From a design standpoint, a students must know their period and topic of study quite well if they hope to create a truly compelling simulation. The simulation designer must constantly ask oneself questions like the following:

  • Did this sort of encounter really happen?
  • What factors motivated these actors?
  • What options were available?
  • Why did these people behave the way they did?

These are the same questions one would theoretically ask when writing a well researched and supported thesis about the past. The difference here is that students designing a simulation must actually create a working system — a game model, as it were, that incorporates the key historical factors chosen and works. Ideas are not static whether they are in paper form or not, but the very fact that a simulation is a dynamic working system means the ideas contained within can be tested (and broken) for more readily for a high school student than the ideas in many papers can. Furthermore, simulations are simplified systems designed to represent complicated historical systems. They are better tasked to represent complicated and changing relationships than a paper.

None of this should be taken as an attack on the history paper. The benefits of using clear, structured, well-supported writing as a way to organize and develop clear, structured, well supported thought, is inestimable. On the other hand, a simulation design activity allows student to engage in a hands-on design experience that requires, if done properly, the same research rigor as a formal paper. It has the opportunity to engage learners of all kinds. Furthermore, if the final simulation is actually used in class, it becomes a form of authentic assessment.

These have been the guiding principles of the elective course for high school seniors, Designing Historical Simulations, that I have taught at Cincinnati Country Day School for the past 7 years.

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