“Reacting to the Past” Brings History (and Students) Alive in the Classroom

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Professors at CCSU are bringing an innovative approach called “Reacting to the Past” into the classroom. Originating at Barnard College, Reacting to the Past puts students in charge of their own learning by having them reenact controversial moments in history through a series of debates. Students role play as actual historical figures and must accurately represent the person’s positions and ideologies in order to succeed.

Reacting to the Past was first brought to Central by Dr. Mark Jones and is now used by multiple faculty members in the department. “Students have been trained, especially in history, to sit and take notes and it becomes a comfortable role for them…The pedagogy of Reacting to the Past forces the students to take responsibility for the classroom and their learning,” said Dr. Jones. Student Olivia Lahner, who participated in two Reacting to the Past games explained “you have to work with your peers…You really get into the class and learn, you don’t just remember dates and facts.”

Dr. Louise Williams, also of the CCSU History Department, uses Reacting to the Past in her classroom as well. One of her games covered the vicious debates during the formation of the first French government after the French Revolution. “We have a regular class for two to four weeks where I give background information about the historical period. Then we play the game. Each student is given a historical character they have to research and understand their position on certain issues,” she said. Every historical character has unique victory objectives. If students meet these objectives they “win,” which means they gain additional points. “If you are trying to win, you really have to understand the point of view of your character and of the other side. They have to do extra research…You know they like it when you get an email at 8:00AM from a student with a question about their character,” said Williams.

Students must debate, give speeches, and write essays in support of their character’s interests. “I had to know parts of the Bible and Lutheran ideas. I had to learn what the people wanted in England at the time, and I had to know a lot about alliances between players and countries,” said Lahner. Professors point students in the right direction, give advice, and if things are going too well they throw a wrench into things. For example, during a game involving the Independence of India students were “too happy to get along,” so Dr. Williams orchestrated a communist revolution.

Reacting to the Past is especially advantageous for non-history major students taking general education history courses. Students learn essential skills like negotiation, public speaking, persuasive communication, and research that will benefit them no matter what their career path or major.

Student Keithlin Caroo participated a Reacting to the Past game about the Independence of India. “I played Abdul Maulana Azad, India’s first Minister of Education and one of the few Muslims in the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress…[the game] really made me feel like I was some type of foreign minister using game theory to achieve an equitable solution between two nations. Being that I do want a career in foreign policy and international development, it was a great platform (though fictional) to practice skills I would use in the future.”

Dr. Jones is impressed at how Reacting to the Past gives students a better concept of history in all of its complexity. “They get a sense of how complicated history is. A lecture course makes history seem very clear and comprehensible. By forcing students to go back into the past and visit these times of controversy and all the debates and factors playing into these moments they get a much more visceral idea of the past and how events very easily could have gone a different way. History is not preordained,” he explained.

Reacting to the Past courses offer students a more engaging and hand-on experience than lecture courses. However, professors realize it is not the best choice for everyone. “Some students don’t like game playing and some don’t like public speaking. So we don’t want to make all our courses that way. [But] we wanted to add something different and more engaging,” said Dr. Williams.

On the other hand, some initially skeptical students are won over by the interactive and competitive nature of the games. “After the first day of class where I explained to [students] that it wasn’t a traditional course, a student came up to me and said ‘I don’t mean any offense but is there any way I can switch into a normal history class?’ But that kid ended up being one of the students who seemed to really enjoy the game the most,” said Dr. Jones.

 

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