Sunday, September 12, 2004

The Great War in the Classroom (on-line simulation to teach the origins of World War I)

The Great War in the Classroom (on-line simulation to teach the origins of World War I). This is an article which has ideas for for helping students learn about the First World War.

From the site:

Many students are turned off by history because it seems to be nothing more than a litany of names, dates, facts, battles, and kings. They do not realize that above all else, history is about imagination. It is a particular kind of imagination—one that is grounded in the sources upon which it is based—but no less creative because of that. Even at the introductory level, history can be dynamic, interesting, and relevant. At least, it can do this in theory. Translating ideals into practical results is never as easy as one might hope. The Great War project was conceived to confront two problems that I was having with my Western Civilization II class. The first problem was how to teach military and diplomatic history without putting everyone to sleep. In Western Civilization II, the main focus is on World War I and II. Most of the instructors I had seen bypassed the wars themselves and focused on their impact and lasting influence. While this helps to increase relevance, it does skew the perspective on the wars towards hindsight, which can trivialize the reasons why the wars were fought in the first place. I wanted to correct this and to have students grapple with the strengths and weaknesses of international relations, a major theme of the course.

A second problem was assigning a research project. I tried several more conventional projects, such as writing essays on points of controversy or analyzing primary sources, and had dismal luck with these. Other instructors had reported success with interview and field trip projects, but these are not easily applicable to European history classes. Like most institutions, the school where I worked was pushing its instructors to make better use of its technological resources, but I was concerned about the ease the ease with which students can (and do) plagiarize material from Internet sources, whether intentionally or unintentionally. A good assignment would need to compel students to do original work.

The Great War project, an extended role-playing exercise, was the result. Many historians believe that the countries of Europe demonstrated a profound lack of imagination when it came to the diplomatic machinations that directly preceded World War I. In this simulation, students are divided into groups of 1-4 players, each representing one of the countries that participated in those machinations. They are encouraged to produce new outcomes that better reflect the interests of their respective nations, so the risk of plagiarism is minimized. By using role-play, I intended to capture the benefits of active learning and student cooperation. Though more research needs to be done, most preliminary studies have shown that active learning is more effective than traditional lectures (McCarthy, 2000). Additionally, I hoped to promote the development of civic responsibility, an awareness of international affairs, and sensitivity to cultural differences, all of which had been successfully done using role-playing techniques in other settings (Hofstede, 1999; Monahan, 2002; Menton, 1994).

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