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Online Simulations

John Simkin

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This originally appeared on the History Forum. You can read the responses here:


I am going to divide the seminar into two sections. First I want to look at what a simulation is and why history teachers should use them in the classroom.

Secondly, I intend to look at some of the historical simulations that are currently available on the Internet.

In their book Simulation in the Classroom (Penguin, 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 now want to take a look at some of the simulations available on the internet. One of the best sources is the BBC history website.

Hunt the Ancestor

The student plays the role of a an archaeologists. In the simulation the student has to save a prehistoric burial site from destruction by quarrying. When the burial site is found the archaeologist has to find the remains and to work out about the lives of these people. The archaeologist is given a budget of £72,000 and this is used to take aerial photographs, visiting the local records office, etc.

Another good source of simulations is Russel Tarr’s Active History website. Russel teaches history at Wolverhampton Grammar School and runs one of the best history websites on the net.

Life in the Trenches

In this simulation students play the role of a British soldier who joins the army in 1914 to fight the Germans. The simulation takes the student through the process of joining the army. They are constant links to a First World War encyclopaedia that provides the student with the opportunity of carrying out further research into the situation. The student is also asked factual questions that they have to answer before continuing with the simulation.

The simulation involves the students making difficult decisions. For example, “You turn your head up towards the sky to get some fresh air, and you spot a large kite flying in the distance which clearly has writing on it. Do you:

“Stand up on the fire-step and read the message on the kite?”

“Ignore the kite and carry on working?”

In this way the student discovers that the kite with a message was a tactic used by the Germans to get the Allied soldier to lift their head above the parapet. The students survival in the simulation depends on them learning what it was like to live in the trenches during the First World War.

Adolf Hitler

Russel has also produced a controversial simulation on Hitler. This involves the student interviewing Hitler. When I publicized this simulation in my weekly newsletter, Teaching History Online, I got some abusive email. Russel has also suffered from this claiming that this simulation somehow encourages fascism. As Russel points out at the beginning of the simulation:

“Several people have suggested that by tackling this controversial topic in an accessible way I am guilty of promoting Neo-Nazism.

My reply is this: dismissing Hitler as "pure evil" ignores the fact that millions of ordinary, supposedly 'decent' people supported him. Sweeping this fact under the carpet is much more irresponsible and dangerous than tackling it head on.

Empathising with the German people who supported Hitler does not mean sympathising with them, but it does prevent us complacently dismissing the evils of Nazism as a "German problem" and thereby leaves us much better equipped to tackle similar tragic situations if and when they arise again.”

Finally I want to look at some simulations on my own website. 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 in 1987 I also published computer simulations such as Wall Street, Russian Revolution and Presidential Elections. When I get the time I plan to pace these computer simulations on the web.

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.

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.

A second example concerns the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The simulation 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.

A third example concerns Russia in 1914.

The students are given information about the character they are playing. 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.

I am currently working on a simulation on life in a medieval village that will last for six months in real time.

The activity 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 one of England’s 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 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 chose 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 and 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 the 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.

I have used the simulation for many years in the classroom. This was a paper version and I hope and expect it will be improved when it goes online.

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.

The simulation has detailed teacher notes and a commentary on the answers of the tasks set. I will be putting these on line over the next couple of weeks.

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I have used John's online simulations on many occasions. My best documented example is the Child Labour debate that he outlines above.

Traditionally, I have had students produce their speeches to digital video camera which they then edit for webstreaming http://www.intst.net/humanities/y9/term1/i...ebate/index.htm

In addition this year we created an online discussion forum to allow the students to take on the role of the characters they had researched about. Three schools were involved, each in a different country. John 'chaired' the debate and the kids had a great time.

You can follow the debate at http://www.schoolhistory.co.uk/studentforu...hp?showforum=10

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Guest ChristineS

I can feel myself becoming envious of the opportunities that History allows for such explorations.

In a more limited way I could see how these ideas may be developed for English; perhaps as preparation for ideas and issues in a text? Or pre-reading character-situation studies?

Students could be given information about characters and then in groups of four, each as that character, given certain situations that have taken from the text to discuss and work out how their character might behave; then put into mixed character groups to debate it? (Or be put straight into mixed characater groups.)

I cannot see any potential for on-line extensions of this work although I can see the potential for that all important research into cultural background to a text being introduced by the students being required to research the background to their characters times and bringing it to the discussion. I can also see how the presentation of the characters and situations after the discussion can be enhanced though Flash and power point and these means could be used by the students to prepare their response which they then feed back to the class (student as teacher?) through an interactive whiteboard.

I love how ideas from other curriculum areas can stimulate ideas for mine!

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