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Stimulation through Simulation: Creating an Excellent Adventure as Students Have a Blast with the Past

Anthony Pattiz


"The value of history is, indeed, not scientific but moral: by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies…it prepares us to live more humanely in the present and to meet rather than to foretell the future."
-Carl Becker

Historical Education—Mind Numbing Experience Or Excellent Adventure?

     As the pace of technological change reshapes the global landscape in which we live and work, historical education increasingly finds itself at an important crossroads. Parents are dissatisfied with failing schools and mediocre performance, teachers are frustrated by efforts to tie their performance to standardized measures of minimum competence which sacrifice depth of understanding for breadth of coverage, administrators are overwhelmed by unfunded mandates and conflicting regulations, and students are increasingly disengaged from a process that replaces intellectual curiosity with "kill and drill" exercises that are mind-numbing at best.

     For the world history teacher, this challenge is especially daunting since he finds himself struggling to reinvigorate an old discipline while simultaneously confronting the demands of an increasingly global constituency. Politicians and the public-at-large demand objective measures of student achievement to make sure no child is being left behind. Students, on the other hand, reject the standardization of teaching and learning, seeking instead greater engagement with the subject matter under study. With the world history teacher caught in the crossfire, it is an opportune moment to reexamine how world history ought to be taught in our classrooms.1

     Deborah Meier, who led an educational renaissance in one of New York City's most disadvantaged areas, offers a sober assessment of the long range impact of the standardized testing movement. "Standardized testing," she argues, "and the systems built around it are the latest obstacles facing us, and they threaten to engulf the energies of teachers in a fruitless and counterproductive attempt to beat the test rather than take on the unfulfilled task of educating all children well."2 Meier goes on to conclude that these tests threaten to undermine historical education through their trivial obsession with a "one right answer" approach to learning, and is worth quoting at length:

To organize schooling around tests is a blow to serious intellectual work: given that no particulars are likely to merit more than one or two questions, and deeper and subtler thought is often an impediment to scoring high. Reading a lot of books on a subject can actually leave one more baffled when confronted with a request for just the two most important causes of the Civil War, or one of the best reasons for Hitler's rise to power (answer on a recent Massachusetts state test: "the Versailles Treaty"—an appalling answer except for the fact that the alternatives were less reasonable). Letting schools become focused on coaching to test items is not just silly—given their normal character—but counter-productive to the aims of good schooling—which should include looking behind the alternative answers offered, not becoming good at intuiting "the one right answer."3

The challenge for world history teachers in the twenty-first century is to transform a mind-numbing experience into an excellent adventure, thus reawakening in our students a natural love of learning, which every child first brings to school as kindergartners.

     Today, it is possible to find life imitating art. In Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, two high school students need to pass their end-of-year history report. Like so many of today's teens, Bill and Ted find themselves turned off and tuned out by a fact-laden, mind-numbing curriculum that has left them behind. Peter Sacks, an investigative journalist, who has been nominated for the highly coveted Pulitzer Prize, would likely understand and empathize with Bill and Ted's plight. In Standardized Minds, he provides us with a scathing critique of the standardized testing movement and a disturbing indictment of a society which continues to embrace these tests uncritically. Sacks reports that:

Most educators have rarely publicly acknowledged the engagement problem and the strong tendency of test-heavy environments to reinforce a certain disinterest among growing numbers of students in almost all things academic. Indeed, when you get to the subtextual strata where the real problems of American schools become exposed, one finds educators relatively unconcerned about the abilities of pupils of all races, classes, and ethnicities to excel in school. What they fear most is that too many kids hate school for all the reasons anybody would hate institutions that tend to be boring, un-engaging, regimented, and run by adults saturated with the fear engendered by accountability politics. The adults' test- driven classrooms exacerbate boredom, fear, and lethargy, promoting all manner of mechanical behaviors on the part of teachers, students, and schools, and bleed schoolchildren of their natural love of learning.4

In the film, Bill and Ted are rescued from their exercise in historical futility by Rufus, portrayed by George Carlin. Rufus provides Bill and Ted with a way to make history come to life. By providing Bill and Ted with a time machine, he enables them to travel back through time. As a consequence, the pages of history come to life for these two novice historians who find themselves connected with the past in a way most high school students would envy. In the digital age, the challenge for world history teachers is to borrow a page from the pedagogy of Rufus by transforming a largely test-driven and consequently mind-numbing curriculum into a series of excellent adventures.

Stimulation Through Simulation:

     In The Idea of History, philosopher-historian R.G. Collingwood proposed that history is best understood as a reenactment of past experience. Collingwood described this process as follows:

He [the historian] must think that problem out for himself, see what possible solutions of it might be offered, and see why this particular philosopher chose that solution instead of another. This means re-thinking for himself the thought of his author, and nothing short of that will make him the historian of that author's philosophy.5

While intended as a guide for historians, Collingwood's idea offers those who teach history with an innovative blueprint for stimulation through simulation. He offers today's beleaguered world history teachers the exciting prospect of connecting their students to the past through an adventure that Bill and Ted would most likely describe as "excellent." Imagine a high school history curriculum energizing and motivating an increasingly apathetic student population to work toward realizing their full potential. Imagine a philosophy of education that, at its very core, focuses on leaving no potential unfulfilled instead of leaving no child behind. Such a remarkable journey begins with a simple, yet important proposition that students are more likely to remember and understand the past if it is presented as a powerful shared experience in which they are active interpreters rather than merely as a laundry list of names, dates, and places to be recorded, memorized, and then quietly forgotten when the test is over.

Connecting Students To The Past in a Digital Age

     To transform the classroom into a "time machine" through a series of concrete instructional activities, world history teachers must move from a teacher-directed, textbook-based approach to a student-centered, multidimensional approach that shifts the primary responsibility for learning from the teacher to the learner. This requires a leap of faith because it entails building a curriculum around an engaging set of activities designed to promote higher order thinking. Richard Paul, director of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, defines this approach as "learning through exploring the foundations, justification, implications, and value of a fact, principle, skill, or concept."6 World history teachers need to break the bonds of standardized teaching and think anew. They do this, first and foremost, by seeing their students not as passive receptacles to be filled with a series of discrete and disconnected facts, but as practicing historians who are young apprentices learning the craft of history.7

     Borrowing a page from the pedagogy of Rufus, I made that leap of faith fifteen years ago by transforming my own classroom into a "time machine." I did this to test the idea that history could best be taught through the reenactment of past experiences. I began this process by instructing my students on how to utilize the skills and dispositions typically associated with learning for deep understanding.8 Linda Darling-Hammond, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, defines the type of instruction that promotes this kind of learning:

It requires the use of higher-order thought cognitive functions, that taking beyond recall, recognition, and reproduction of information to evaluation, analysis, synthesis, and production of arguments, ideas, and performances. It asks students to apply these skills and ideas in meaningful contexts, engaging them in activities they have real reason to want to undertake.9

The skills associated with learning for deep understanding are defined by Nichol as those dispositions necessary to develop a "thinking skills" perspective when approaching the study of any historical topic:

     The development of historical thinking, is a set of skills and processes [that] should run in an unbroken line from the earliest stages of formal education through to adult life. Skills and processes provide history's syntax: they give the discipline its shape, form and structure. Syntactically, history fosters the ability to question, to investigate, to process evidence, to hypothesize, to debate, to create an understanding, to explain and to justify. These procedural skills arise from children 'doing history,' working in the same way as historians with teacher guidance and support.10

Since 1991, my students have been assigned roles as participants in various historical simulations including archaeological expeditions, diplomacy exercises, battle simulations, historical debates, and mock trials focusing on war crimes such as Andersonville, Nuremburg, and My Lai. Each year represents a journey of educational discovery unlike the year before, which not only energizes the students, but energizes their instructor as well.11

     The lessons and activities I include are those recommended by T.N. Turner, whose research examines the efficacy of using historical reenactment as a standard tool of historical instruction at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Turner proposes the use of "explorations and discoveries, moments of invention, decision-making events, historic meetings and confrontations, debates and trials, signing of treaties and surrenders, cultural reflecting ceremonies, rituals and rites, and construction tasks."12 Applying this idea, I immerse my students in a series of reenactments of major historical events—or historical turning points—that define the human experience itself. As a consequence, like Bill and Ted in their time machine, my students seek greater involvement with the subject matter and are transformed into willing participants in a search for historical truth while thinking profoundly about issues of historical consequence.

     The lessons I use have to meet three criteria. First, they must introduce students to the techniques of historical analysis by providing opportunities to distinguish point of view and to assess evidence. Central to this idea of stimulation through simulation is the notion that historical thought is multi-dimensional. It is therefore of critical importance for student-historians to be able to embrace and defend divergent points of view if they are to grasp the larger significance of how historical events influence subsequent understandings of who we are and why we are the way we are. Richard Paul underscores the importance of lessons that promote divergent thinking. He uses the American Revolution to illustrate this idea: "when considering a question, the class brings all relevant subjects to bear and considers the perspectives of groups whose views are not canvassed in their texts—for example, what did King George think of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress, Jefferson and Washington, etc."13

     Second, students engage in individual and group research activities affording them various opportunities to wrestle with questions of historical significance. Through these investigative processes, students place themselves in the frame of mind of the person(s) who made history. For example, students might research and present historical narratives on famous inventions from the vantage point of the person responsible for initiating the breakthrough. One student is transformed into Thomas Edison explaining how his revolutionary light bulb actually works, while another portrays Wilbur Wright describing the aerodynamics involved in early flight. In this way, students gain a unique understanding into what happened and why.14 Such an understanding, while traditionally confined to the realm of historians, transforms a series of dull experiences into a series of engaging adventures. Most importantly, however, it also provides participants with practice analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating: those very higher order functions that have sometimes been jettisoned in today's world history classrooms.

     Third, the lessons provide students with numerous opportunities to rethink the past for themselves through a series of historical decision-making simulations. As Butler reports in his research, "Simulation allows presentation on three levels: facts about the issue being presented in scenario, the processes and skills in which the participant must be engaged, and the development of alternative strategies of decision-making."15 Harold Guetzkow defines a simulation as referring to "the construction and manipulation of an operating model, that model being a physical or symbolic representation of all or some aspects of a social or psychological process. In education, simulation entails abstracting certain elements of social or physical reality in such a way that the student can interact with and become a part of that simulated reality."16

     Theodore Sizer, a principal architect of the Coalition of Essential Schools, supports using historical simulations to transport students back through time. He reports:

A six-week course in European history, which I visited one summer, for example, was built around court cases, each argued by teams of students. I witnessed the final arguments of the Dreyfus trial, presided over in stern efficiency by a black- robed attorney who was the mother of one of the students. The competition was palpable, the arguments were well researched, and the students understood the dilemmas implicit in the case. These kids were engaged in serious ideas in a way that gave those ideas life and with an intensity that assured their retention and their impact.17

Over the years, I have developed an instructional approach to teaching world history that relies on four important strategies:

1.  Students are introduced to the techniques of historical analysis through exercises requiring them to distinguish point of view and assess the evidence introduced in support of those views. In other words, students know their work must be grounded in historical facts as opposed to simply giving voice to unsubstantiated opinions. To succeed, they must therefore master the rules of evidence through a dialectical process [e.g., debates, trials] in which they are challenged, not by their instructor, but by their peers. Teenagers, being who they are, are highly motivated because their peers are constantly observing, listening, and evaluating everything they do.

2.   Students engage in individual and group research activities that include examining specific individuals, events, issues, and/or ideas. The objective is to assess the historical significance of these topics and relate them to the present. For example, as stated earlier, students asked to research revolutionary innovations do so from the vantage point of the innovators themselves, in doing so give their peers a unique understanding into how their innovations changed our world. From these valuable insights, it is possible for students to make connections between past, present, and future.

3.  Students are assigned roles in a series of historical decision-making simulations. These roles require the participants to rethink the past in order to defend the point of view embraced by the historical actor each student portrays.

4.  Students prepare debriefing exercises in which they synthesize their newfound understanding of the issues, individuals, events, and ideas under investigation. These exercises give students significant opportunities to record the insights they acquire based on whether their understanding withstood the dialectical process embodied within the simulation itself.18

Monty Neill has conducted extensive research into the adverse effects of tying teaching exclusively to testing. He concludes that test-driven change does not significantly improve learning, and that policymakers need to shift their attention to practices and models that emphasize serious thinking and teaching.19 Neill's conclusion applies to teachers as well. Stimulation through simulation permits world history teachers to make connections between different historical events separated across centuries. I have asked students to compare and contrast the guilty verdict in the trial of Socrates with President Lincoln's decision to suspend the writ of habeus corpus during the American Civil War or President Roosevelt's executive order interning Japanese Americans in camps during World War Two. At first, students typically express shock and surprise. Most, however, subsequently report that they are now more active consumers of news, both written and televised, as they attempt to better understand the tradeoffs between an individual's rights of free expression versus a government's desire to protect the security of its citizens. In the aftermath of September 11th, this approach offers new possibilities for teachers who wish to make their students aware of how our nation must make difficult tradeoffs involving civil liberties versus national security. For, as Thomas Jefferson cautioned us, "That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part."

     To move from mind-numbing experiences to excellent adventures, teachers of world history need to ask themselves, "What are the historical turning points that have shaped the human experience?" And, "How can these turning points form the basis for a unique set of experiences that will enable my students to gain insights into why the past is both exciting and relevant?" Parker J. Palmer, a highly respected writer and traveling teacher who works independently on issues in education, spirituality, community, and social change, notes:

In every period of history, there is an event that when deeply understood, reveals not only how historians do their work, but also illumines the general dynamics of that epoch. In the work of every philosopher, there is a pivotal idea that when deeply understood, reveals the foundation of his or her system or non-system of thought. By teaching this way, we do not abandon the ethic that drives us to cover the field—we honor it more deeply. Teaching from the microcosm, we exercise responsibility toward both the subject and our students by refusing merely to send data "bites" down the intellectual food chain but by helping our students understand where the information comes from and what it means. We honor both the discipline and our students by teaching them how to think like historians or biologists or literary critics rather than merely how to lip-sync the conclusions others have reached.20

In the information age, workers must "think" for a living. A curriculum encouraging them to do so will uniquely prepare the next generation for the global challenges posed by our post-industrial age. Or, as Alfie Kohn reminds us, "It is not only the ability to raise and answer questions that matters, but also the disposition to do so. To be well educated is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends."21

     Sam Wineburg, a distinguished professor of education who has done extensive research and published an authoritative text on the concept of historical thinking, suggests that although most of us think of history—and learn it—as a conglomeration of facts, dates, and key figures, for professional historians it is a way of knowing, a method for developing an understanding about the relationships of peoples and events in the past.22 If we are to imbue in our students a similar understanding, then it is incumbent on those of us who teach world history to move toward a new conception of historical thinking and instruction. We can accomplish this important task by stimulating intellectual curiosity through simulating the great events of long ago.

     History should be studied because it is an absolutely necessary enlargement of human experience, a way of getting out of the boundaries of one's own life and culture and of seeing more of what human experience has been.23 Such a conception is rooted in the notion of the "idealist" historian who seeks to understand the past by getting imaginatively inside the minds of individuals in the past. By studying the mental world of the past, today's students of world history should seek to inhabit the minds of their subjects, knowing that this requires imagination inspired by evidence.24

     It is time for those of us who teach world history to think differently about how we teach. We have arrived at a turning point: one choice is to forge a partnership with our students as fellow historians. In doing so, we might assist them along pathways associated with higher order thought while instilling in their young hearts and minds a love of learning that will last a lifetime. A second choice is to continue doing business as usual; rendering our discipline largely irrelevant in the lives of those whom we purport to teach. Let us commit to transforming our classrooms from a forgettable (and soon-to-be forgotten) collection of facts and dates into a series of excellent adventures that will remind our students why an understanding of the past is both important and necessary. Or, as Anthony Hopkins, through his brilliant portrayal of John Quincy Adams in Steven Spielberg's Amistad, implores us to remember, "We understand now, we've been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding... that who we are is who we were."

Biographical Note: Dr. Anthony Pattiz is currently the social studies chairperson at Sandy Creek High School located in Tyrone, Georgia. In 2000, Anthony Pattiz was selected for inclusion in the USA Today "All Teacher Team." Since 2000, Dr. Pattiz has twice been selected as a Class Nobel Educator of Distinction by The National Society of High School Scholars. His previous publications include a chapter in the book titled: Creating A Community of Learners: Using the Teacher as Facilitator Model, published by Clemson University in 2000, an essay entitled The Idea of History Teaching published by The History Teacher in February of 2004 and The Case for Teaching History as the Reenactment of Past Experience published by Teaching History: A Journal of Methods in the spring of 2005.

Appendix One: We Come Not To Bury Caesar

As we consider the role of the United States in the twenty-first century, the Romans hold many clues to our own successes and failures. As in the case of America in the twenty-first century, Rome in the first century stood astride the Western World as a colossus whose economic, military, and political power was unrivaled. In this regard, studying the Romans offers student-historians a unique opportunity to better understand the opportunities and limitations associated with being a contemporary superpower in a dangerous world.

     After introducing this topic through lecture and classroom discussion, students assume the roles of Roman writers and historians. They are assigned to a historical team and return to their school's library to research primary source documents including works authored by Livy, Plutarch, and Tacitus. While some teachers express disbelief that students would actually be able to digest these scholarly works, I have found that there is strength in numbers. By placing students in learning teams and giving each team clear-cut instructions, it is possible for the students to analyze what is being said and why. My objective is to have these students analyze primary source documents from the perspective of the person who wrote them. This is consistent with Collingwood's notion that historians must think the thoughts of the 'historical other.' Students are expected to draw conclusions based on what these writings tell today's historians about the people of this earlier time. Larger themes such as justice versus freedom, order versus autonomy, and influence versus inequality are explored and discussed. Each team reports its findings to the larger group. In the process, a picture of Roman society and culture takes shape, which offers today's students' unique insights into how Rome shaped the history of the Western World.

     We move from these reports to a larger examination of the similarities and differences between ancient Rome and present-day America. Students are placed, once again, in learning teams. This time, however, the objective is to compare and contrast the Roman Empire of the first century with the United States in the twenty-first century. First, students analyze how these two great civilizations are alike and how they are different with regard to a specific variable be it economic, military, political, or cultural. Second, they examine what lessons leaders of today might learn from ancient Rome's successes and failures. By linking past to present, students are able to make connections that are otherwise missing in a curriculum of coverage stressing rote learning instead of learning for deep understanding. Having examined these issues in some depth, each student team will lead a discussion exploring what our society can learn from the lessons of Rome. The perils and possibilities are considered to give today's learners a better understanding and appreciation of their role as citizens in a democracy.

     This year, student participants in my world history classes will be examining Cullen Murphy's recently published work entitled Are We Rome? Students will work in groups to analyze and discuss one of the five major chapters of this work. These students will prepare written and oral responses for the following discussion questions: (1) What, specifically, are the similarities cited by Murphy between the Roman Empire and the United States of America? (2) What, specifically, are the differences cited by Murphy between the Roman Empire and the United States of America? (3) Do you agree or disagree with Murphy's major conclusions? (Students must give reasons, substantiated by historical evidence, to support their responses.) (4) Based on the chapter analyzed by your learning team, what lessons can today's leaders learn and why? Through an examination of this timely work, it will be possible for students to link past to present through oral presentations and written reports that will be examined, discussed, and debated by the class as a whole.

Appendix Two: To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before

Who really discovered America? This simple yet profound question can serve as a springboard to launch an engaging and stimulating unit on the Age of Exploration. While the textbook authorities claim this distinction belongs to Christopher Columbus, this debatable proposition is not without its opponents who have grown more prominent in recent years. Why not give our practicing historians the opportunity to tackle a question that has challenged scholars and historians alike?

     To introduce this unit, I present information to my students in a traditional lecture-discussion format in which we examine the reasons why individuals would risk life and limb to boldly go where no one has gone before. Please understand, I am not suggesting that teachers abandon the more traditional approaches to historical instruction. What I am proposing, instead, is that high school history instruction move beyond the realm of teacher-directed, textbook-based learning, which has served as the dominant approach to this discipline since time began. The teacher and the textbook should both serve as a point of departure, which students can use to launch out into the great beyond of document-based analysis, historical research, and the subsequent re-enactment of past experience as a means for breathing life into the great ideas that have shaped our world.

     After introducing the topic, students begin their exploration (no pun intended) by researching the contributions of a given explorer. I have students draw numbers out of a hat corresponding to the name of a famous explorer. They become this person by researching his place of birth, early life experiences, activities which led him to choose a life of exploration, actual explorations including where he went, what he witnessed, and any interactions that he (and his crew) may have had with the native population, and how his voyage of discovery changed our modern world. These are the questions, in microcosm, that a historian, writing a biography of this individual's life and achievements, would want answered. And, more importantly, they are the questions of significance that interest, engage, and thereby encourage my students to develop their higher order thought processes.

     Students come prepared to educate their classmates as to the historical impact of their given explorer. I have found this to be both entertaining and informative. In the case of one young man, who role-played Hernando Cortez, he was forced to field hostile questions from a studio audience who expected him to defend his harsh treatment of the Aztecs. He responded brilliantly, arguing that the Aztecs, themselves, had exploited the native peoples of their own region including the Olmecs, Toltecs and others. He was the liberator of these oppressed peoples who gave the all-powerful Aztecs a taste of their own medicine and—in doing so—altered the course of human history. His inspiring performance may not have been unlike that which Cortez, himself, would have given had he been called on to defend his actions. While every performance does not equal this one, the idea of history teaching presented in this essay is about what is possible when young minds are unleashed. Or, as John Dewey so aptly put it, "All education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race."

     We move from these presentations to a debate focusing on the question: Who really discovered America? I challenge my classes to brainstorm the various historical possibilities: Vikings, Asians, Europeans, Native Americans, or others. We then assemble a panel of would-be contenders for this prestigious title based on students whose earlier research gives them the confidence that they have a legitimate claim. Students work together to role-play and research the historical evidence supporting the respective claims of each of the participants. A panel of six to ten contenders is created, a student moderator is selected, and other students judge the arguments, cross-examine the participants, and select a winner who receives the title of "Discoverer of the New World." Interact provides an excellent simulation entitled Who Really Discovered America, but I would recommend supplementing their product with outside student research as outlined in this essay.

     The debate between rival explorers serves as a culminating experience. I include a written component in which all of my students write a one to two page analysis. They select one of the panelists and make the case—using the historical evidence and arguments presented during the debate itself—that their chosen explorer is the true discoverer of the New World. This written analysis gives these students the opportunity to reconstruct their insights through a concrete exercise, which serves to solidify students' understanding of the important concepts under review.

     These lessons not only serve to promote historical understanding, they also provide students with important practice in developing the skills and dispositions necessary to succeed in today's world (e.g., critical thinking, logical reasoning, analytical writing, persuasive speaking, collaborative teamwork, creative problem-solving). And, perhaps most importantly, these experiences change lives. Recently, I was visited by a former student who is now pursuing an advanced degree in International Studies. He recounted for me, with delight, how my course helped him to make his choice of a career. I have had other such visits with young people who tell me how this approach to teaching and learning has opened doors for them and has led them down exciting new pathways they never thought possible before entering my classroom. I never fail to be amazed by these encounters with former students. In a pet store with my three sons not long ago, I encountered a former student who gave me a hug and told me she was planning to pursue an advanced degree in contemporary history. When I expressed surprise, she responded, "Why Dr. Pattiz, your class is the reason I made this choice. Have you any idea how many of my friends lives have been changed by your class too?" Obviously, I did not, but this—in the final analysis—is what an education ought to be—a life changing experience shaped by thoughtful questions and purposeful inquiries. Socrates understood this when he concluded that, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

     The reflective activities associated with this dynamic approach to teaching history do not end when the bell rings and my students move on to their next class. On the contrary, this is where these ideas and experiences take on a life of their own as students contemplate new possibilities and acquire a larger awareness of their own talents and abilities. This is only possible, however, in an environment that opens students' minds by first opening their spirits. Regrettably, we are rapidly losing sight of this important reality given the way in which we are educating our young today. Our focus in public education should not be on sharpening number two pencils in preparation for the next standardized test, but on sharpening students' minds in preparation for an ever-changing world.

Appendix Three: The Peasants Are Revolting

I often remind my students that a revolution is an idea whose time has come. In our unit on revolutions, we examine how ideas shape revolutions. We begin by examining the theories associated with different types of revolutions be they political, religious, cultural, or social. My goal is to engage my students in a discussion of the reasons why revolutions happen and what the potential consequences of a revolution are for the society as a whole.

     I will sometimes launch this unit with a lesson appropriately titled, "You Say You Want A Revolution," courtesy of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In Phase One, my students assume they are revolutionaries who plan to overthrow their school. Rest assured, however, this exercise is purely hypothetical and involves NO real violence on the part of any students. I have these would-be revolutionaries generate a list of grievances, develop a new system of governance, and design an alternative to the status quo. Students perform these tasks as part of learning teams enthusiastically since, as part of their hypothetical revolution, they are able to remove [only hypothetically speaking, of course] those teachers and administrators whom they dislike. In the process, they examine whether Thomas Jefferson was right when he claimed that "a little revolution now and then is a good thing."

     Phase Two of this exercise involves moving from victory on the fictitious battlefield to efforts to install a new administration. Each revolutionary group gets its turn at bat while other groups role-play the disenchanted proletariat who seek a better life and a brighter future. Since our focus is on the school itself, the proletariat is typecast. My students simply portray themselves and the new revolutionary governing council quickly discovers the truth behind what an old Chinese peasant once said to Genghis Kahn after he had conquered much of Asia. "Master," he said, according to this story, "it is easier to conquer from the saddle than to rule from the saddle." Most groups find themselves overwhelmed by the list of demands unleashed by those who have been at the bottom of the hierarchy all their lives and now believe their moment of liberation has finally come. This leads my students to a discussion of the various reasons as to why revolutions fail. Having experienced failure themselves, these students are eager to apply this lesson while studying other failed revolutions in history.

     Next, I move my students from the present day to the more remote past by examining the Scientific Revolution. Students produce a television documentary focusing on Galileo's challenge to the Catholic Church. In this documentary, students' interview people who knew Galileo, create a mock debate between supporters of the Copernican and Ptolemaic theories of the solar system, and reenact the papal inquisition in which Galileo was forced to recant his ideas in defense of the heliocentric worldview, which he had previously supported. As in the case of other lessons, involving trials, debates, and documentaries, I have discovered that there are excellent commercial simulations available for purchase so that a teacher need not feel pressured to reinvent the wheel. Interact produces an excellent simulation, which I have modified by including actual primary and secondary source documents focusing on the period in question. Such documents have included Galileo's Galilei's Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina de Medici and Franklin Le Van Baumer's brilliant work titled The Scientific Revolution in the West.

     We move from science to politics by reenacting the trial of Louis XVI for his crimes against the people of France. Once again, Interact has an excellent simulation teachers can purchase to provide a framework for reenacting this trial, but it is important to supplement their historical outline with outside readings and research activities. My students research and prepare to assume their roles by examining the issues at stake from the vantage point of a political revolutionary. In this trial, we recreate the different parties to the French National Assembly. One student role-plays the embattled King of France, two others serve as his legal consul, a fourth student assumes the role of the president of the national assembly, and the remaining members of the class are divided into three political factions. One faction represents the radical Jacobins who want to put an end to the King and to the monarchy itself. A second faction represents the more moderate Girondists who want to transform France into a constitutional monarchy along the lines of the British government. The third faction represents the undecided bloc whose votes are crucial for deciding the future direction of the French government. Each group will examine the issues from the vantage point of their actual historical counterparts. Students will familiarize themselves with the arguments of Jacques Pierre Brissot, Georges Jacques Danton, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre, and other leaders of the French Revolution.

     As part of their pre-trial research, I have the students who represent the radical faction research the fledgling American government, which has only been existence for a short time. (Remember, it is 1789: The Constitution of the United States was only ratified two years earlier while George Washington has spent less than a year in office as President.) I have students who represent the moderate faction research the development of the British parliamentary form of government from the signing of the Magna Carta to the English Civil War. In the process, these students analyze the subsequent political realignment between the Crown and Parliament. Both sides are poised to give their colleagues a wonderful history lesson comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of these two competing forms of participatory government.

     Through the introduction of an idea of history teaching in which students must place themselves inside the mind of historical decision-makers, the curriculum moves individuals toward an authentic understanding of the ideas and concepts, which form the foundations of the various areas of study. In the case of Louis XVI, students grapple with these issues and ideas in an intelligent and thoughtful manner because they have been empowered to shape both the history of France and, in turn, of western civilization. More often than not, however, my students avoid the pitfalls associated with the Reign of Terror since, unlike their radical counterparts of 1789, they have had the opportunity to weigh the issues and consider the alternatives given the benefit of historical hindsight. They emerge from this unit with a profound understanding of why many, if not most, revolutions ultimately fail and what the consequences of this failure are for people whose hopes and aspirations are dependent on a successful resolution of the difficult problems confronting their society.

     The culminating activity is one in which students assume their side has triumphed. As a consequence, they must prepare for an uncertain future by offering specific written policy recommendations for the effective governance of France. In the case of the Jacobins, how will they forge a constitution and create a government that avoids the pitfalls of the French monarchy? In the case of the Girondists, how will their constitutional monarchy ensure democratic representation and avoid the abuses of power associated with the Bourbon Kings? In the case of the undecided, which plan will they ultimately adopt and why? In the case of King Louis XVI and his legal counsel, what changes will this chastened monarch make to ensure greater representation on behalf of all of his people and how will he guarantee that he, and his successors, will not repeat the horrible mistakes of the past? These are the essential questions that require students to demonstrate a depth and breadth of understanding that is all too often missing from secondary school instruction.

     A complaint I often hear voiced by adults, both inside and outside of the teaching profession, is that young people simply do not care anymore. Is it that they do not care? Or, is it that they have not been trained how to think intelligently about issues of consequence? Based on my own experiences as a classroom instructor for almost twenty years, I believe it is the latter. In the guise of educational reform, we have progressively dulled the senses of our young to the point where they have lost an innate ability to reason and a pronounced desire to make sense of the world around them. In my own classroom, I am confronting a new generation of students who lack motivation and who are ill prepared for the challenges of the twenty-first century. Under the seductive guise of educational reform and the false promise of measurable results, these children of No Child Left Behind have been progressively de-skilled by a mind numbing elementary and secondary school curriculum, which is increasingly intended to serve only as a preparation for their school's end-of-year standardized tests. Many of these students no longer care. Would you?


1 Anthony Pattiz, "The Idea of History Teaching: Using Collingwood's Idea of History to Promote Critical Thinking in the High School History Classroom." The History Teacher, 37:2 (2004), 239-249.

2 Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities Of Learning In An Era of Testing And Standardization (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).

3 D. Meier. See note 72.

4 Peter Sacks, Standardized Minds: The High Price Of America's Testing Culture And What We Can Do To Change It (Massachusetts: Perseus Publishing, 1999), 256-257.

5 R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946).

6 Richard Paul, Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs To Know To Survive In A Rapidly Changing World (Santa Rosa: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 1992), 649.

7 In the appendices, I provide concrete instructional approaches built around a set of assignments that will engage students' higher order thought processes. It is not possible to provide an exhaustive list within the parameters of this essay, but field-tested activities are included from specific units of study.

8 A complete description of the statistical methodology used to document student gains in higher order thinking can be found in Anthony Pattiz, "Teaching History As The Reenactment Of Past Experience," Teaching History: A Journal Of Methods, XXX: 1 (Spring 2005), 15-31.

9 Linda Darling-Hammond, The Right To Learn: A Blueprint For Creating Schools That Work, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 109.

10 J. Nichol, "Who Wants to Fight? Who Wants to Flee? Teaching History from a "Thinking Skills' Perspective," Teaching History (May 1999), 6-13.

11 In the spring of 2008, students in two classes will pilot a historical reenactment of the International Military Tribunal on the Far East (otherwise known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trials). The objective is to examine the historical significance of the crimes against humanity committed by the Japanese. These crimes and their long-range historical consequences have long been ignored by Japan's government and, as a consequence, tend to be overlooked by most world history survey courses.

12 T.N. Turner, "Historical Re-enactment—Can it Work as a Standard Tool of the Social Studies," The Social Studies (September/October 1985), 220-223.

13 Richard Paul, Critical Thinking, 645.

14 A typical student assignment focusing on the achievements of famous innovators would involve students drawing numbers out of a hat corresponding to the names of individuals whose innovations changed the course of human history. These students would then role-play the person in question for their peers by presenting salient information and answering questions. Additionally, these students would write a research report, which addresses four fundamental questions: (1) In what way or ways could your person be considered "innovative?" [Be sure to include a definition of innovation, which supports your response to this question.] (2) How did your person's innovation change their industry and our world? In other words, how did they influence the larger world in which they worked? (3) Why is it important to remain innovative in the twenty-first century? (4) What lessons could today's innovators learn from the person whom you researched?

15 T.J. Butler, "Games and Simulations: Creative Educational Alternatives," Tech Trends, 33 (1988) 20-23.

16 Harold Geutzkow, Simulation in the Social Science (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1962), 2.

17 Theodore Sizer, Horace's Hope: What Works for the American High School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.)

18 Petranek, whose research on writing and simulations supports the work of earlier studies in this area, concludes that the written debriefing exercise is an opportunity for learners to distinguish between multiple perspectives and assess the validity of these perspectives in a reflective format.

19 Monty Neill. "The Dangers Of Testing," Educational Leadership 60:5 (2003), 43-46.

20 J Palmer Parker, The Courage To Teach: Exploring The Inner Landscape Of A Teacher's Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), 123.

21 Alfie Kohn, What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 9-10.

22 Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001).

23 Bernard Bailyn, On The Teaching & Writing Of History (New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1994), 12.

24 C. Williams Robert, The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History, (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2003), 16.


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