Experiencing history in the classroom

Experiencing history in the classroom

By Rachel Phillips, OER Project Learning Scientist

When you think back to your own experiences in school, what are the things that stand out? For many, they’re likely related to experiential learning. It’s easy to remember doing the school play or engaging in a simulation about something or playing a game. Writing an essay or taking notes generally aren’t the things that make an impact. Research shows that arts-integrated and experiential learning tend to lead to longer-term retention and success in the classroom. These experiences are beneficial for all students and especially for SPED, ELL, and students who may feel otherwise disengaged from classroom learning.

Both the Big History and World History Project offer a lot of opportunities for simulations, debates, and other more hands-on experiences. If we think about history and experience in the classroom, we often think about traditional simulations, such as taking on the role of participants at the Treaty of Versailles negotiations. However, at the OER Project, we take an expansive definition of these types of experiences. So, for example, in BHP one of the first activities is Big History on a Football Field. Having students act out something such as scale, while not exactly history related, still helps them visualize what can be an otherwise abstract concept. The course also features debates and other opportunities to get creative, such as the project-based activity Invent a Species, or forming interdisciplinary teams to analyze and understand a historical event in What Do You Know? What Do You Ask?

Examples of goods from the Silk Road game: gunpowder, silk thread, paper money.

Silk Road goods cards from the Silk Road Simulation activity.

WHP offers more “standard” simulations such as Cold War Crisis and the Silk Road Simulation where students can take the role of regional merchants. There are also other activities that employ a more liberal definition of experiential learning, such as throwing yarn in Our Interconnected World or simulating an assembly line. Sometimes it can take more preparation and work—simulation directions generally take a little longer to read through—but if you go to the OER Project Online Teacher Community, you’ll get ideas and support from teachers who have implemented these activities in their classrooms.

Examples of documents marked Top Secret showing events from the Cold War.

Classified documents students examine in the Cold War Crisis simulation.

An important note on creating your own experiential learning activities: Not every topic is suitable for a simulation, and using simulations for sensitive topics can be disengaging, harmful, and isolating for students. It’s still important to teach these topics but for certain historical events—the Holocaust and slave trade, for example—primary sources are far more suitable. For example, you could provide students with primary source documents of a specific concentration camp and ask students to draw a map of the camp, or use first-hand accounts of slave voyages to engage students with the topic in a way that is respectful toward people’s personal histories and doesn’t make light of some serious historical topics and issues. If you’re not sure if it’s appropriate for a simulation, it’s best not to do it.

We highly encourage you to carve out a little time for these types of activities. You may not always feel as though you have the time to devote to them but the learning experiences that come from these activities are powerful and memorable. Have you tried this approach? If so, please share your ideas, successes, and any words of advice in the OER Project Online Teacher Community.

Note: We’d like to credit OER Project teachers who helped develop some of the activities referenced in this blog: Julianne Horowitz and Todd Nussen—Cold War Crisis; Wood Boyles—Silk Roads; Karen Prager—using primary sources to learn about the Holocaust. As always, we love to hear your ideas—many of our activities are dreamed up and developed by teachers like you!

About the author: Rachel Phillips, PhD, is a learning scientist who leads research and evaluation efforts for the OER Project, as well as develops curriculum for their courses. She is elementary certified, has taught in K–12 schools, and currently serves as an adjunct professor for graduate courses in American University's School of Education. Rachel was formerly Director of Research and Evaluation at Code.org, faculty at the University of Washington, and program director for National Science Foundation-funded research. Her work focuses on the intersections of learning sciences and equity in formal educational spaces.

  • In Big History I tried the Silk Roads Simulation with a brief version due to lack of time. We used world maps to visualize the process of commercial exchange routes and the role played by different advanced societies and middlemen. I also introduced the Assembly Line simulation with adaptations for Big History. My students understood the concept of division of labor and assembly line, optimizing time and labor (Taylorism) and other related concepts. 

  • I agree, I still remember an activity I did in middle school where we had to plan to get fresh drinking water on a deserted island with only a few items. I think focusing on these activities has been very helpful for my students now as well. When I have younger siblings of former students they get excited when they hear we are doing certain activities because they remember their older sibling talking about it at home. I love that this has so many opportunities to engage children in their learning. . 

  • We'll be tackling the Treaty of Versailles simulation later this week! I've done other versions of it in the past, but struggled with making sure student negotiations stayed on track. The way WHP provides structured options for countries to choose from helped students stay focused with productive discussion. I had to do the simulation via Zoom last year so I am really looking forward to giving it a try face-to-face this year!

  • I have always found this to be an important part of a social studies class.  We tried the cold war simulation and it worked really well.