What do you say when a student calls from the delivery room, where his wife is in labor, and wants you to put him on speakerphone so he can participate in class?
For 10 years, I lectured or led discussions in World Civilizations classes. Why not? When I was a student, I loved lectures. I sat in class attentively (well, most of the time) and took notes eagerly. After 50 minutes of class, my notebook was full, my hands cramped and my brain happy. So that’s the way I taught.
But today’s students are different. There are many ways to characterize the so-called “millennials.” But one thing is sure. They want and need a greater variety of activities and more hands-on involvement than I would have been comfortable with.
So now we play games. Specifically, we play lengthy role-playing games in which students assume the role of historical figures at critical moments in history. This semester, they are playing Chinese bureaucrats trying to reverse the slide of the Ming Empire, citizens of New York in 1774-76 debating their relationship with Britain, and Indian politicians pleading with the British to quit India. During the games they make speeches and debate other students. But they also parade, stage demonstrations, plot behind the scenes and even attempt to “kill” other characters.
During the games, the students control the classroom. I’m extraordinarily active behind the scenes, giving advice, reading rough drafts and suggesting background readings. But in class they run the show and I just take notes. We talk a lot in academia about teaching leadership. In my classes, students practice it daily.
Ninety percent of the students love it. They get to laugh, move around and even shout at each other in class. One of my favorite memories is of a student playing a patriot in New York in 1775 getting out of her chair and walking across the tables to mob a loyalist. As one student put it (recounting a date spent talking exclusively about the game), it can take over your life.
I’m glad they’re having fun. I am as well. But much more important is how much they’re learning.
The core of the games, for all of the yelling and plotting and competing, is an attempt to win other students to a particular vision of the future. Each game revolves around a critically important issue. How do you balance the desire to respect majority rule with the need to protect minority rights? How do you respect traditional ways while allowing innovation and experimentation? How do you allow passionate protest while prohibiting violence?
To inform their solutions, each game includes a significant amount of reading (the Analects of Confucius in the game about China). By explaining and challenging these ideas themselves, students learn far more effectively. And they get to engage issues critical to the modern world.
To be sure, there’s a cost. Focusing in depth on a few case studies, my students miss the broad narrative of World History. But I think the deeper understanding more than makes up for that.
There’s still a place for lectures. Students haven’t changed that much in a certain number of years I won’t reveal here. Tell them a good story and they’ll hang on your every word. And, just as students have learning styles, teachers’ preferences and strengths differ significantly. But for me, encouraging my students to inhabit the history they’re learning has enormously improved learning and engagement.
Oh, by the way. I told the almost new parent I didn’t want to be responsible for his divorce and so would not put him on speakerphone. Forty minutes later, his classmate told me she had been texting him updates and he had a proposal to make. I finally gave up and let him participate. India exploded and he lost the game. But, so far as I know, he’s still married.Tags: Analects of Confucius, Britian, China, India, Indian, Kelly McFall, Ming Empire, New York, World Civilizations, World History