Spartacus Blog

History Simulations in the Classroom

John Simkin

In their book Simulation in the Classroom (1972), John Taylor and Rex Walford argued that an educational simulation has three main components: (1) Students take roles which are representative of the real world and involve them making decisions in response to their assessment of the situation that they have been placed in. (2) Students experience simulated consequences which relate to their decisions and their general performance in the simulation. (3) Students monitor the results of their actions and are encouraged to reflect upon the relationship between their own decisions and the resulting consequences of their actions.

An essential part of a simulation involves the student playing a role of a character in the past. One of the major objectives of the creator of the simulation is to help the student understand the situation of that person. In other words, helping the student develop a sense of empathy.

In his book, The Process of Education (1960), Jerome Bruner argues that simulations encourage active learning. However, Bruner prefers some simulations to others. He argues that the "value of any piece of learning over and above the enjoyment it gives is that it should be relevant to us in the future". That is something I always take seriously when I am constructing a simulation.

Other arguments in favour of simulations include:

(i) They are usually problem-based and are therefore helpful in the development of long-term learning.

(ii) The normally involve the use of social skills which are directly relevant to the world outside the classroom.

(iii) Simulations deal with situations that change and therefore demand flexibility in thinking.

I have been involved in creating history simulations since I first started teaching in 1977. When we established Tressell Publications in 1979 we were committed to producing commercial simulations. In fact, the second book we published, included a simulation on the First World War that I had created during my PGCE course. We then went onto publishing computer simulations such as Into the Unknown, Attack on the Somme and Wagons West. When I started Spartacus Educational in 1987 I also published computer simulations such as Wall Street, Russian Revolution and Presidential Elections.

However, I have been able to create several historical simulations over the last couple of years that are freely available on the web. One involves the issue of child labour at the beginning of the 19th century. (Teacher's Page).

Child Labour

In Child Labour each student is given the name of an individual that was involved in the debate that was taking place at this time. This included factory owners, factory reformers, child workers, parents, journalists, religious leaders and doctors. The student is then given an instruction sheet with details of the Textile Industry Encyclopaedia website and what they needed to do. This includes writing an account of their character and a speech on the subject of child labour.

Each character had an entry in the Spartacus Encyclopaedia. This provided them with biography and sources that enables the student to discover his or her views on the issue. The website also includes information under headings such as factory pollution, parish apprentices, factory food, punishments, working hours, accidents and physical deformities. There are also entries in the encyclopaedia on the machines the children used and the type of work they did in the factory.

It is interesting the way they react when they discover who their character is. Initially, they are much happier about playing the role of a factory owner. They quickly develop the idea that they are in some way responsible for the wealth that the character has obtained. Those who are given the role of a child worker are less happy at first but the more they investigate their situation, the more involved they become in the need to find ways of overcoming the problems that they faced.

The exercise helps to explain the complexity of child labour in the 19th century. The students discover that some factory owners, such as John Fielden and John Wood, were actually leaders of the pressure group trying to bring an end to child labour. At the same time, social reforming journalists like Edward Baines were totally opposed to any attempt by Parliament to regulate the use of labour. Even doctors did not agree that it would damage a child's health to be standing for twelve hours a day in a factory where windows were kept closed and the air was thick with the dust from the cotton. What the children discover from their in-depth studies is why the individuals felt the way that they did. In the debate that follows, this is revealed to the rest of the class.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The simulation on the Cuban Missile Crisis comes at the end of a detailed study of the relationship between Cuba and the United States in the 20th century. This involves a study of the three main characters in these events, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev .

During the Cuban Missile Crisis Kennedy established the Executive Committee of the National Security Council to advise him what to do. The students have to imagine they are members of this committee. They are given six possible strategies for dealing with the crisis. They have to work out the possible consequences of these strategies before advising Kennedy what to do.

Russia in 1914

The students are given information about the character they are playing. (Teacher's Notes) This includes their beliefs and objectives. The students are then placed in four discussion groups: Group A (supporters of Nicholas II and the autocracy); Group B (liberals and moderate socialists); Group C (Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries) and Group D (Bolsheviks). Each group has to decide how to respond to different events that took place between 1914 and 1917. The students are warned that there could be spies in their groups. During the simulation they have the freedom to move to another group. In fact, if they keep to their beliefs and objectives some will actually do this. For example, Trotsky is likely to move from Group C to Group D during the simulation. If they do not go of their own accord the teacher plays God and tells certain characters to move. Playing the simulation students should get an idea of why the Bolsheviks gained power in 1917.

At the end of the simulation the students go to the Russian Revolution encyclopaedia on the website and discover what happened to their character during 1917. They then write a brief summary of what happened, comparing their decisions with those of their character.

The final task is for the students to write about what happened to their character after the Russian Revolution. A session could then be organized where the students tell the rest of the class about their fate.

Yalding Village

In 1995 I began using a paper simulation based on a medieval village. When I created the original I got a group of local teachers to trial the material. After I heard about their experiences I put it online. (Teacher's Notes)

At various times in the simulation the characters leave the village. This includes the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage, take part in the 100 Years War, on march on London during the Peasants' Revolt. Serfs in the village also get the opportunity to runaway and hide in a town.

The scheme of work begins with a look at Richard FitzGilbert, a Norman knight who took part in the Battle of Hastings. After the battle he became the Earl of Clare and became one of England largest landowners. For the next few weeks the students follow the history of the Clare family between 1066 and 1330. This involves looking at issues such as castle building, feudalism, Domesday Book, religion, Thomas Becket, the Magna Carta, Origins of Parliament, the Clares in Ireland, the Clares in Wales and the Battle of Bannockburn, where the last of the Clare male line, Gilbert, 10th Earl of Clare, is killed. The Clare Estates (only the king owned more land than the Clares) are then divided up between Gilbert, 10th Earl of Clare's three sisters.

The simulation looks at just one village under the control of the Clare family. The village is Yalding in Kent. I selected Yalding because a lot of its manor records have survived. It also has the same church and stone bridge that existed in the 14th century. It is still farmed and its common land still exists (they still hold the village fair there today as they did in the 14th century). The land is fertile but the village still suffers from the flooding that plagued medieval residents of Yalding.

The simulation starts in 1336. Each student is given a character who lived in Yalding at that time. They are all given a house in the village and details of their family, animals, land, farming equipment, etc. Some are serfs and some are free. Each student is a head of a family with children. In 1375 they will become the son or daughter of the present character.

Every week the students will receive via the website an update of their changing circumstances. For example, increasing revenues means they can buy more animals or if they are serfs, their freedom. During the simulation the students experience events such as harvesting, meetings of the Manor Court, a Village Fair, the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, Statute of Labourers Act, the Poll Tax, a visit from John Ball, and finally the events of 1381.

The highlights of the simulation includes when the village is hit by the plague and when they have to decide whether to join the peasants revolt (a slight majority usually decide to take part).

The whole activity was designed to deliver the Y7 unit on Britain 1066-1500 (Medieval Realms in 1995). All the material in the simulation is differentiated. So also are the characters. Therefore it is possible for the teacher to allocate the students roles that are applicable to the abilities of the individual.

Schools who use the simulation are recommended to arrange a visit to Yalding. Several features are the same as in the 14th century. The students get a particular thrill when they visit the churchyard and they see the names of the relatives they have been playing on the tombstones. Unusual names like Singyard and Brickenden have survived in the village for over 700 years.

Important pages concerning the simulation: (1) Introduction (2) Differentiation (3) Lesson Commentary: The Norman Conquest (4) Lesson Commentary: The Medieval Village (5) Resources: The Norman Conquest (6) Resources: The Medieval Village (7) Yalding Manor Records (8) Teacher Resources

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