I’ve just begun binge-watching Timeless and the series not only has me mesmerized with the concept of alternative history, but it has me scouring online to learn what events actually transpired – something I never did in grammar school history classes. (I realize the web didn’t exist at that time, but suffice it to say I wasn’t looking up historical themes in my World Book Encyclopedia just for fun.) Who would have died if the Hindenburg erupted into flames a day later, on its next scheduled trip? Was Lincoln’s son really saved from death on a New Jersey train platform by the brother of the president’s assassin? How would the balance of world powers have shifted if Von Braun had never been brought to America to head the race to space?
History is dull. Or so I thought during middle and high school. Memorizing the endless names and dates and maps felt like prepping for a round of Jeopardy. Our dedicated and dapper teacher Mr. Babel reminded us often that, “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” My classmates dutifully attended to his lectures and readings and authentic documents, but I struggled to care much about these dead ancestors inhabiting places I’d never visited. I couldn’t envision how this information could impact my daily life – how to make it actionable. Until now.
Today, there are few disciplines more relevant or necessary to safeguarding our way of life than history. From resurging nationalism and attacks on the free press to civil rights struggles and regulatory rollbacks, our nation has lived these moments previously. And yet America seems gripped by an Alzheimer’s of sorts, as though we’re encountering these themes for the first time, and the hard-learned facts of history have faded away. We’re only doomed to repeat history if we don’t know history and if we can’t think objectively about how to fashion different, more desirable, outcomes.
So how can we craft critical educational experiences allowing students to replay history without just acting it out, mindlessly regurgitating and “repeating it”? Providing students tools with which they learn the actual events of history, and then manipulate those events to examine how consequences may have turned out differently, may be a good start. You’ll recognize this idea if you’ve ever seen the Man in the High Castle (yet another alternative history TV series): the episodes reimagine a post-WWII America in which Japan and Germany emerged the victors. It’s a rather jarring concept, and one which snaps students to attention as they debate how the altered timeline would overtly and dramatically affect their lives – in mostly undesirable ways. Ultimately, though, a TV series can only take students where the producers want to take them.
What if history were taught not as a series of static facts imbuing its learners with “knowledge,” but as a collection of information and interconnections which can be reshuffled and replayed to provide insights and inform strategies relevant to today’s world? Experiencing the messiness of leading nations, negotiating policy, commanding troops, and managing resources is the true goal of social science education – one which role play gamification (RPG) can bring to fruition. Multiplayer RPGs such as Making History (Factus Games) invite students to engage in those messy tasks, with the opportunity not just to replay history as it occurred, but to take part in a “do-over” by making different decisions which lead to alternative (hopefully better) outcomes. What’s more, students enjoy learning through gamification as they move from passively consuming history to actively producing a new history given the same participants and settings (Watson, Mong, & Harris, 2011).
Ultimately, getting students to invest in civil discourse and politics today must start with scaffolding their understanding via the historical events which are boomeranging back around. But getting them to apply that knowledge to make it living and actionable – and using it intelligently to inform governance – requires something more than the dry methods of instructing history we endured three decades ago. It’s time to employ technology and critical thinking to transform history instruction with same vigor we’re employing in teaching STEM. Our democracy depends on it.
Watson, W. R., Mong, C. J., & Harris, C. A. (2011). A case study of the in-class use of a video game for teaching high school history. Computers & Education,56(2), 466-474. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2010.09.007