Most are familiar with the adage, ““Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” With all due respect to George Santayana and those who have expressed similar sentiments over the years, it may be time to adjust this important sentiment, at least when it comes to teaching and learning.
Simply put, we cannot expect 21st-century students to truly learn from history — and civics and social studies in general — in the same way and through the same approaches that may have worked for Santayana, Winston Churchill, and others concerned about repeating history. The methods of old, those with experienced educators lecturing in front of a class of students all sitting at desks in straight rows, is quickly becoming a thing of the past. If the students of tomorrow are to truly “learn from history,” they require instructional approaches that better reflect their own interests, learning styles, and experiences.
In his terrific book, The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, noted education reporter Greg Toppo takes a critical look at how gaming can be used to improve teaching and learning, even in the hardest-to-reach, most-lacking-in-resource schools.
Toppo examines everything from a video game version of Thoreau’s Walden Pond to using Minecraft to stage an originally developed high school opera. At the root of all of his examples, Toppo shows how learning is adapting, and how teaching must also adapt to keep up with a complex, more demanding learner.
Teachers’ experience bears that out. “The philosophy behind gaming in teaching is great to develop trust with students and put the learning more in ‘their court,’” said James Washburn, a New Jersey high school social studies teacher. “I love to empower students, and they enjoy getting the power to make decisions themselves. Gaming does that.”
Earlier this year, Washburn was part of a new initiative jointly led by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and Institute of Play called HistoryQuest. The Woodrow Wilson HistoryQuest Fellowship serves as a yearlong professional development opportunity to help social studies teachers use the power of games, play, and digital tools to transform both teacher practice and student engagement. Teachers like Washburn have already put summer gaming lessons to work in the first few weeks of the school year, as he has used gaming to help his high schoolers better understand the roles of William Penn and the Lenni Lenape to negotiate their 1682 treaty.
While the Woodrow Wilson Foundation focuses on the professional development and educator preparation side of how gaming can be most effective in teaching, others, like iCivics, have made absolutely incredible inroads in providing much-needed interactive learning resources that leverage the power of gaming to improve social studies instruction. And they are lessons seen in the newly opened Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which is utilizing interactive experiences to better teach, to educators and students alike, how the legislative branch works.
Yes, these efforts — and many like them — are different. They are different in approach, in target, in goal, and even in the level of true digital gaming involved. But isn’t that the point? In an age where we have finally recognized that learners and the teaching that best reaches them in not homogeneous, don’t we need (and shouldn’t we demand) a range of approaches that truly reach students at their very learning DNA?
As a young learner, I found my initial passion for reading through the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, where I was empowered to decide how the story was to turn out. Through these books, I learned there was more than one right answer and more than one correct path.
And that is the role gaming now plays in my kids’ classroom. I want a teacher who has been part of the HistoryQuest program to make social studies come alive for my kids in a way a paper-and-ink textbook simply can’t. I want a music teacher that is channeling my son’s love of Minecraft to help him appreciate his grandfather’s love of opera. And I want an educator who can use the simulations of the Kennedy Institute to help my daughter better understand what I did all those years when I worked on Capitol Hill.
For years now, we as a nation have lamented that our students lack the very basics when it comes to civics education. We cringe when they (and their parents) demonstrate even a simple grasp of our nation’s history and foundations. We are destined to repeat those history shortcomings if we don’t transform our approaches to preparing social studies teachers and to teach civics and history to our kids.
We will raise another generation of Americans who cannot name the three branches of government or don’t know the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution if we don’t seek better ways to connect social studies instruction with social studies learners. Gaming has the power to make that transformation.