About six years ago and six years into a career as a sixth-grade social studies teacher, Rick Brennan noticed he was getting the same questions again and again from his students. He knew what they would ask, when they would ask it, and he was bored. Brennan considered leaving the profession, but instead decided to innovate. Together with his colleague, Jason Darnell, he completely re-designed how learning happened in his classroom.
Brennan and Darnell were teachers who would try anything to reach students. And they had the good fortune to work at Lanier Middle School, a public magnet school set in the leafy Montrose area of Houston, Texas among antique shops and cool cafes, known for the oldest accelerated learning program in the city and the space it gave teachers to try new things. So over the years Brennan and Darnell had experimented with all kinds of activities: media projects, debates, games. Whenever they used a game, they noticed, the atmosphere in class was electric. The kids were totally on task. And they asked themselves, why can’t it be like this all year long?
This question led them to design Historia. Historia is a civilization simulation game that incorporates a year-long world cultures curriculum aligned to Texas state standards. The game is played in class using worksheets, research materials—reference books and a few desktop computers—and an interactive presentation, delivered by Brennan. During the game, students cluster together in teams to form civilizations, which they must govern skillfully, as they progress through world history, meeting and measuring themselves against all the peoples that existed between 2000 BCE and 2000 CE.
There is a long tradition of simulation games in social studies. One success in the early days of personal computing was The Oregon Trail, a game where players took on roles as pioneers to face first-hand the hardships of westward expansion. The game debuted in a history class in Minnesota in 1971, with students waiting up to a half hour just to take a turn. Since then digital simulations have come a long way in terms of speed and sophistication. But some teachers are discovering that, when it comes to learning, and especially in resource-strapped school districts, a game on paper can be as persuasive as anything on screen. “Very simply,” says Brennan, “this is best teaching practice. When I didn’t teach this way, I would have ten percent of my class who I would struggle to get to pay attention. I don’t have that problem any more. Right now my biggest problem is calming kids down, they get so excited. And that is a very good problem to have.” Brennan is not alone. John Hunter, a fourth-grade public school teacher and designer of the paper-based simulation game World Peace, tells a similar story in the recent documentary World Peace and Other Fourth-Grade Achievements.
Getting the design of Historia right took Brennan and Darnell six years, working in their spare periods and off hours, and lots of trial and error. One of the most difficult things to design was the level of challenge in each round of play. “At first it was too hard,” Darnell remembers. “It’s important that students feel success. If they don’t feel success, they just give up.” Darnell’s and Brennan’s most important resource in calibrating the experience of game play was their students. They were super-eager to give feedback and suggest improvements. Brennan recalls the students pushing early on and often for more interactivity. For example, in each game round a historically significant event occurs that determines the destinies of student civilizations. At first there was no opportunity for the students to respond to the event as leaders. So instead they responded as play-testers and convinced Darnell and Brennan to incorporate into the event a dilemma: a difficult choice students must make that shapes outcomes for all civilizations.
The active role students took in the design of the game mirrors the active role they take in their own learning during game play. That’s because the game creates a link between knowledge and experience in a way that matters to students. Students have a need to know about the Trojan War, because knowing about the Trojan War makes them better leaders in their own civilization, and then their team has a better chance at succeeding in the game. Because students care about succeeding in the game—through their own experience—they come to value the knowledge that leads to skillful decision-making and, coincidentally, academic achievement. And their relationship to history deepens. Darnell observes, “When you see a group that has a dictatorship, that group will make decisions in like ten seconds. Whereas the groups that have democracies won’t come to a decision for five or ten minutes. They take so much longer, and that’s a reflection of how the real world works. The kids experience it, and we discuss it.” The students are transformed from consumers of static historical facts into participants in the decisions and processes that shape history and make our civilization what it is today.
Brennan has used Historia in his own classroom since its inception, and the kinds of questions he now gets from students are of a much higher order. This year, while studying Hammarabi’s code, for instance, one student asked, “Why would a government make a law system that created fear? Why would a government want people to fear it?” “That’s a brilliant question!” Brennan exclaims, “I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Two years ago the game moved beyond Brennan’s and Darnell’s classrooms, and beyond the school’s gifted-and-talented program, thanks to word-of-mouth among Lanier students. It was the students who convinced sixth-grade social studies teacher, Jennifer Pung, to bring the game to her classroom. And so Historia had its first test with the school’s sizable English-language learner population and with students in individualized education programs. After another round of careful re-calibrations, the game is performing well, so well that it is being piloted in other Houston area schools this fall. “When you’re in the classroom, it’s sort of organized chaos,” Pung admits. “But the students are much more excited to come to class. You can hear them gossiping about it in the hallways!”
After class, the sixth-graders clamor to share their perspective. “The best part of Historia,” says one bright-eyed student named Sophie, “is being able to create your own history. Because not only do you get to learn about other countries during that time period, you get to learn what has happened and what can happen to you.” This is precisely the idea that inspires Brennan and Darnell to keep investing their energies in Historia. As they work to move the game beyond Houston, they imagine giving every kid a deep memorable experience of the constant change that lies at the heart of history and drives the rise and fall of civilizations and human fortunes. “What keeps us going,” says Darnell, “is the fact that in the end kids are going to have a history of their very own civilization. These kids can write their own textbook. They don’t need a traditional textbook. They haven’t just learned history, they’ve learned to make it, like leaders and historians.”
A version of this article was originally published on The Atlantic website on November 21, 2011. View original.