Archived Voice Articles

History "react to the past"

By Sally Jongsma

Dr. Paul Fessler doesn't like boring classes any more than his students do. So last spring when he stumbled upon an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on a different approach to teaching history, he gave it a second look.

The article described a classroom approach called "Reacting to the Past" where students participate in historical games or simulations that are based on actual events. Fessler is quick to point out that they are not re-enacting history and just as quick to dispel doubts about whether using games implies lack of rigor in the course. He's convinced that his students worked harder, enjoyed it more, and learned more in his American history class last spring than they did the previous time he taught it. This semester he is using the same approach for studying the French Revolution in his Western Civilization class.

Fessler is surprised at his own enthusiasm for the method. "I'm a lecturer," he says. He loves the challenge of presenting engaging lectures to his classes and is known for doing it well. "I've always been skeptical of group work, reluctant to give up time that I felt could be used more effectively by lecturing," he says.

Nevertheless, he wrote Professor Mark Carnes from Barnard College at Columbia University to ask if he would be willing to send him some information on the role-playing simulation described in the article.

"He sent me everything," Fessler says, amazed, and Carnes invited him to join a workshop in New York. Fessler was unable to go, but did use a unit on Anne Hutchinson in his course in the fall and attended a workshop with faculty from other colleges over Christmas break.

"I was scared," recalls Fessler. "The simulation takes three weeks. That's a big chunk of the course if it flopped." But he was told that if he set it up right the students would take over. And they did. The simulation is based on the trial of Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638. Hutchinson was tried for her resistance to what she considered wrong theology being promoted by the leaders of the colony.

"Anne Hutchinson's trial gets at issues such as separation of church and state, religious toleration, and national mission," says Fessler. It also demonstrates the impact Calvinist theology had upon American history.

To begin the simulation Fessler assigned each student a role and broke class members into groups-those who supported Hutchinson, those who supported John Winthrop, and those who were members of the community. One goal was for each side to persuade those unaligned that their case was right.

"It started slowly," says Fessler, but elements of competition built into the process helped get some students going. Before long students were lining up behind the podium to contribute. Some of them had previously contributed little to class discussions.

Students were reading such sources as Calvin's Institutes, quoting Calvin on the difference between justification and sanctification as they argued their case. Fessler, who provided students with a list of required and supplemental readings is convinced that had he assigned the students to read what they chose to read for their simulated trial, he would have heard cries of protest about the quantity of reading and difficulty of the resources

In an evaluation of the simulation, one student wrote that the best part about the experience was that they were so engaged with the material. "We were fighting for a cause, so we wanted to read as much …as we could to help our side. It's easier to learn the material when it's important to me. It was important because I was fighting for a cause."

Another wrote, "It was much better than just taking notes or reading a book. By actively participating, it was easier and more enjoyable to look deeply into the issues. I definitely learned a lot more through this game."

The debate happened in and out of class. In fact, when they filled out their evaluations, several students recommended that Fessler keep reminding students that it is only a game. One student said it was too easy to view those on the other side as the enemy-even outside of class while they were working on it. Fessler tried to keep the atmosphere light, using laughter when appropriate to lessen tension. The few who responded negatively to the approach did so because of the conflict they felt it fostered.

By the end they didn't want it to end.

"I really liked the fact that we were learning and getting into the game without realizing it. I never once thought about missing history [class] because I loved the class time," wrote one student, continuing, "It really encourages learning. As a future teacher, this experience has made me want to try some simulation in my own classroom someday."

"I was always excited to come to class," wrote another. As Fessler says, you can't do much better than that. He is pleased that his students strongly encouraged him to use the simulation game again, but he is pleased with the experiment for other reasons too.

Because students learn differently, the experience helped students who are not always at the top academically to be engaged with the material and do well in the class. In fact, Fessler says that the positive attitude toward the unit on Anne Hutchinson seemed to have an affect on students' attitude even after the role-playing was over and he returned to more lecturing.

"It seemed to help keep them engaged for the rest of the semester," he says.

Even more exciting to Fessler was the opportunity it gave for students to see concretely the difference a worldview makes in people's thinking and actions.

"Talking about worldview often goes in one ear and out the other," he says. Many students think they know all about it because they've gone to Christian schools and know what a Christian, at least, worldview is. But in a simulation students have to understand the perspective out of which each character speaks and acts in order to accurately represent their ideas. Staying in character meant being true to their ideas. Knowing what they believed and understanding their worldview became a valuable tool for the participants.

"This became even more evident when students had to take positions that they might not normally EVER adopt," adds Fessler. "Especially when using Calvinist sources for the Anne Hutchinson trial, it was important for students to see how there can be a wide divergence of opinions even when starting with remarkably similar presuppositions and documents. This is much easier for students to examine when time and history make the issues less personal and more easily debated."

Fessler stayed in the background for most of the three-week session, furiously jotting down individual comments as he watched and listened, helping students stay focused and true to their characters. At the end he led a wrap up session to help students see what had happened over the three weeks. Students began to see the role a particular perspective or worldview and ideas had in shaping a community like the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

"That's important for us in America," Fessler says. "Especially at the time of the Revolution, Christian and Enlightenment ideas were intertwined so much that they almost seemed to mesh-even today. But they aren't the same, and, in fact, they lead to very different results."

In the end, it was simply fun, Fessler says about the simulation. Almost the whole class agreed. Despite the fact that they did more reading and writing, average student grades were higher and attitudes better.

"I've never been so enamored with an approach," he adds. In fact, Dordt has become one of only a handful of colleges nationwide invited to become a member of the "Reacting to the Past" Consortium led by Barnard College of Columbia University.

At the same time, Fessler is apprehensive again, wondering whether he can repeat the success with this semester's simulation on the French Revolution with first year students in the introductory history course, Western Civilization. He knows there will be challenges, but he also knows he doesn't like seeing bored faces in his eight o'clock class.