Handle with care: Using historical simulations to teach history

Published on 15 Jun 2020

By Lindsay Gibson

On May 27, 2020 I wrote the following tweet about using simulations to teach history, and was surprised when it sparked conversations, arguments, and resource sharing among historians, history educators, and history teachers in the UK, Europe, Australia, and North America.

My tweet was motivated by recent conversations with UBC pre-service social studies teacher candidates about their experiences with historical simulations during their recent practicum, and my experiences using simulations as a secondary school history and social studies teacher. Research from the United States suggests that teachers regularly use simulations when teaching history and social studies (and anecdotal evidence suggests Canadian teachers frequently use them too), but despite widespread usage, they are often used ineffectively, and have been criticized for having little value for learning history.[1]

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In the first decade of my teaching career I used several simulations, including this Canadian Confederation simulation, but was often underwhelmed by the results and felt that the limitations outweighed the benefits. Since I began teaching social studies methods courses five years ago, I’ve noticed that many pre-service teachers regularly design their own simulations or use ready-made historical simulations in their lesson, unit, and course plans, but are often unclear about their potential benefits and limitations and how best to implement them. 

Given these discussions, I thought it would be helpful to write a post that describes what historical simulations are, identifies the potential benefits and limitations of using them to teach history, and outlines key considerations for using them effectively.

What is a historical simulation?

Teachers often define simulations synonymously with other activities including role-play, games, re-enactments, plays, and demonstrations.[2]  According to Cory Wright-Maley simulations (1) reflect reality in a structured and limited way; (2) illustrate processes, events, people, or phenomena; (3) invite students to participate as active human agents who make decisions and take actions that have consequences for the outcome of the simulation; (4) are “pedagogically mediated” by teachers who make decisions and take actions to ensure that the simulation teaches students something meaningful and important. [3]

Although Wright-Maley argues that simulations are different from role-play and games, he recognizes that pedagogical activities often incorporate elements of all three types in different combinations and degrees.[4] For this reason, I use simulation as a broad term that includes role-plays, re-enactments, mock trials, and games, that have common similarities, but also distinct purposes, benefits, and challenges.

What are the benefits and challenges of using simulations to teach history?

Like all pedagogical methods and strategies, historical simulations can be designed and implemented effectively and ineffectively. For example, in their September 2019 blog post Teaching History with Reacting to the Past Martha Attridge Bufton and Pamela J. Walker describe how they used the immersive role playing game Greenwich Village 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman to revitalize their history teaching. The Reacting to the Past series of role-playing games is created by the Reacting Consortium, an alliance of colleges, universities, and professors committed to using, developing, and publishing role-playing games for higher education. 

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Historical simulations that are poorly designed and executed also have the potential to negatively impact learning and harm students, and several articles have shared stories about historical simulations gone horribly wrong.[5] Listed below is a list of potential benefits and limitations of using historical simulations for teaching history.

Potential Benefits

·      Increases emotional, intellectual, social, and behavioral engagement in learning for students of all abilities.

·      Promotes the development of important competencies including critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and communication.

·      Enhances students’ understanding of conceptual knowledge being simulated.

·      Improves students’ understanding of historical thinking concepts being focused on in the simulation (e.g. evidence, contingency, interpretations, cause and consequence, historical empathy, perspective-taking, continuity and change, and the ethical dimension)

·      Develops students’ sense of empathy, justice, self-efficacy, and agency.

Potential Limitations

·      Trivializes and misrepresents complex and horrific events in ways that minimize victims’ experiences and promote misunderstandings and inaccuracies.

·      Used as a gimmick rather than a pedagogical method to promote deep student learning.

·      Psychologically harmful for students when violence, oppression, or discrimination is simulated or when students are placed into groups of oppressors and oppressed.

·      Time-consuming to design new simulations or adapt existing simulation, and implement in the classroom.

·      Difficult for students who have not been adequately prepared.

·      Can lead students to impose contemporary values, beliefs, and attitudes on past events and people.

·      Ineffective for the acquisition of factual knowledge.

Key considerations

In this last section I outline six key questions that teachers should consider before using historical simulations to teach history.

·      Are my purposes for using a historical simulation justifiable? Simulations that lack clear and justifiable purposes end up being directionless and meaningless. Although student engagement is an important goal, on its own it is not a sufficient reason for using a historical simulation. When identifying justifiable purposes teachers should identify the content knowledge and disciplinary knowledge that they want to deepen students understanding of.

·      Is a historical simulation the most effective method for achieving my purposes? Historical simulations are effective for some educational purposes but not for others. For example, if a teacher wants students to understand what fighting in a trench was like for soldiers fighting in the First World War, reading soldiers’ primary source accounts or listening to oral histories might be a more authentic and effective method than simulating a trench experience in the classroom, or asking students to write a letter home.

·      Does the historical simulation have the potential to harm students? Historical simulations that place students in opposition to each other or simulate violence, oppression, or discrimination have the potential to cause psychological and emotional trauma and should be avoided.

·      What potential misunderstandings might the historical simulation promote? It is important for teachers to anticipate any potential misunderstandings that the historical simulation might promote, and take steps to ensure that these misunderstandings are addressed during or after the simulation.

·      What do students need to know before the simulation begins? Before the simulation begins, it is important that students have been provided with adequate background knowledge about the historical context of the simulation, how the simulation works, what is expected of them during the simulation, and what the goals of the simulation are.

·      What was learned during the simulation? Students should be provided with ample time to debrief the simulation, talk about their experiences, make connections to real-life experiences, apply what they have learned, and assess the effectiveness of the historical simulation as an educational activity.

Although history teachers disagree about whether simulations are beneficial for teaching history, most would agree that the motto “handle with care” is important when conceptualizing, designing, and implementing historical simulations.

[1] Bradley Fogo, “Core Practices for Teaching History: The Results of a Delphi Panel Survey,” Theory and Research in Social Education 42, no. 2 (2014): 151–96, https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2014.902781; Hilary Dack, Stephanie van Hover, and David Hicks, “‘Try Not to Giggle If You Can Help It’: The Implementation of Experiential Instructional Techniques in Social Studies Classrooms,” The Journal of Social Studies Research 40, no. 1 (2016): 39–52, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jssr.2015.04.002
[2] Cory Wright-Maley, “What Every Social Studies Teacher Should Know about Simulations,” Canadian Social Studies 48, no. 1 (2015): 10.
[3] Cory Wright-Maley, “Beyond the ‘Babel Problem’: Defining Simulations for the Social Studies,” The Journal of Social Studies Research 39, no. 2 (2015): 63–77, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jssr.2014.10.001
[4] Wright-Maley, 70.
[5] Rebecca Onion, “What It Felt like? If ‘Living History’ Role-Plays in the Classroom Can so Easily Go Wrong, Why Do Teachers Keep Assigning Them?,” Slate Magazine, May 20, 2019, https://slate.com/human-interest/2019/05/history-classroom-role-playing-games-slavery-holocaust.html; Jennifer Gonzalez, “Think Twice Before Doing Another Historical Simulation,” Cult of Pedagogy (blog), July 7, 2019, https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/classroom-simulations/; Ingrid Drake, “Classroom Simulations: Proceed With Caution,” Teaching Tolerance, no. 33 (2008), https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/spring-2008/classroom-simulations-proceed-with-caution


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