Students of history: Role-playing pedagogy engages students with history, complexity

The giddy energy circulating through the auditorium of the college lecture hall made the “People, Parasites and Plagues” class feel more like an elementary school play than the large science course that it was.

While delivering speeches about a cholera outbreak, some students—including some of the women—are sporting fake moustaches and employing accents that sound like they just finished watching a Harry Potter movie marathon.

The students are offering hypotheses for the outbreak. Some blame “bad air;” others claim the disease is spreading through blood. Both the outdated and reasonable arguments draw a mix of cheers and jeers from classmates, including some shouts of “pish posh” and “hogwash.”

Big science college lecture classes aren’t supposed to use fake moustaches and bad English accents. They aren’t supposed to be silly, either. But in this student-led role-playing game re-enacting—or really reimagining—the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in London, the classroom definitely is engaged.

The fun and game have a purpose, said Julie Moore, a professor of infectious disease in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine.

“The exercise for the students is to really explore these different historical view points of disease,” said Moore. “It’s an opportunity for students to really understand the basis for this kind of (scientific) controversy and gain an understanding of how our concepts of disease have really changed over time.”

The game is part of a pedagogical strategy called Reacting to the Past, which places students in the role of historical figures at a pivotal moment in history. In each of these games, there are arguments to be made, compromises to be struck and decisions to render.

Reacting to the Past has been around for decades. But now the teaching strategy is undergoing a revival in UGA classrooms—especially in science, technology, engineering and math courses—as a way to get students to think more deeply about complex material.

Naomi Norman, Meigs Professor of Classics and director of UGA’s Reacting to the Past Program, said Reacting to the Past creates “a very dynamic classroom,” where students not only participate but get emotionally invested in the material. Norman recently was named UGA associate vice president for instruction.

Reacting to the Past pedagogy originated in the history department of Barnard College, which may explain why many of these games revolve around the kind of events you learn in high school social studies classes, like Plato’s Republic or the French Revolution. However, increasingly games examine historical debates in science and health care policy.

For each game, instructors assign roles. Students must research historical figures, write speeches and collaborate—or conspire—with other students outside of class. The students’ goal is to “win” the game in class, or have their historical figure’s goals realized.

Sometimes the instructor gently prods the class to keep conversation moving and encourages students to negotiate deals with other classmates in and out of class. But mostly, the instructor lets the students lead and watches the game unfold.

One lesson from Reacting to the Past is that history does not always repeat itself. Sometimes the Loyalists win the day in revolutionary New York City; sometimes Octavius fails to become Caesar Augustus; in the case of the game in Moore’s class, sometimes London government officials don’t replace the pump that led to the cholera epidemic.

“It’s the clearest way I know to show history is not linear,” Norman said. “It could be different.”

But Reacting to the Past is more than a lesson in historical perspective.

Fausto Sarmiento, a geography professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, said the game also helps students learn how to construct an argument.

“Intellectually, students are encouraged to fight with ideas,” he said.

Sarmiento, who was named a UGA Reacting to the Past Fellow in 2014, is teaching an Honors geography course this fall that will use a game based on the Copenhagen Accord, an agreement made among nations in 2009 to lower emissions in order to slow climate change.

Students won’t just play the role of scientists; some will be politicians and economists vying for a voice in climate change policy.

“In the real world, environmental policy isn’t only made by scientists,” Sarmiento said.

The appeal of historical role playing, whether it’s in a science or humanities course, is that it allows students to grapple with complexity.

“They face a problem with no clear answer, and they have to work with different people and come to a solution,” said John Burney, vice president for academic affairs at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska. “To get beyond just memorization of facts, Reacting is a powerful tool.”

Burney is chair of the Reacting to the Past Consortium, a collection of 38 member institutes, including UGA, that share information about the pedagogy and develop games.

Back inside the Veterinary College auditorium, class time has ended. In a typical class, students would probably be rushing out the door to the next class. But in this class, even as students remove the fake moustaches and ditch the English accent, students are still talking about cholera and still trying to find an edge to win the game.

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