There’s this woman. She became a doctor around 1900…not super common at the time. I can’t remember her name. Considering the time period, it was probably something like Eveline or Florence or Maud. This basic knowledge is our starting point. One end point brings us to the knowledge that she was Australian, or maybe British, or both, raised Jewish, converted to Christianity, was a Medical Missionary to Hawaii and probably Mexico, possibly a lesbian, and she died of a head injury after being run down by a car in Hollywood. She is a notable nobody of the past.
For students figuring this out, the process is not only Doing History, but it is also Playing with History. This is the same satisfying play that thousands of historians and history professionals, and millions of genealogists do every day.
By exploring a set of documents, students can gain experience and start scaffolding this process. When we do these activities face-to-face with students, they frequently respond with some version of “I feel like a detective!” Feeling like a detective means gathering and corroborating evidence, then coming up with your best guess at “the truth,” but knowing that you may never know for sure. This is historical thinking in practice…one kind of critical thinking in practice.
Teaching students the process of putting together a historical vignette is tricky, but made easier by constraining the places to look for clues (e.g., give them 10 documents and photos). This constraining should make it a viable candidate for moving the process and learning into an online setting. There are even steps that people have developed (see numerous links below).
But if we were to transfer this into an online setting:
- How would you make it engaging?
- How would you make it useful, with real learning outcomes?
- How do you make sure it is non-trivial and not worthwhile to cheat?
- How do you keep students interested when a game requires significant amounts of reading and text-skimming? (This is hard enough when you’re hovering and badgering in face-to-face settings.)
- How do you let students experience the real-life research dead ends, then pull them back from that frustration before they bail?
- And how do you go beyond multiple choice-based monitoring of student progress/understanding to something that monitors students’ synthesis of more nebulous concepts? In other words, students meet some higher-order learning outcomes without the mediation of a live human teacher.
- (Bonus question: How do you do it without designing a one-off game scenario that costs over $50,000 and you can never get another grant to maintain, develop further, or add new scenarios/stories/people?)
- Caveat: For the sake of argument, let’s focus on history process not history content
I only recently learned of the concept of Epistemic Games, “games in which players see what it is like to live in the world of adults.” Is Doing History a good candidate for an epistemic games? The process also shares characteristics with metapuzzles, as described in Friday’s “Narrative Puzzles / ARGs” BootCamp led by the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry folks.
As mentioned, some “standard” approaches for analyzing primary sources:
- Library of Congress – Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tool
- National Archives – Document Analysis Worksheets
- SCIM-C Historical Inquiry strategy (a favorite, very thorough)
- Stripling Model of Inquiry
- UC-Irvine History Project — The “6 C’s”
- Primary vs Secondary sources at Princeton, handy dandy examples
- Peter Pappas’ Teaching With Documents website
- Nikki Lamberty at Carleton College
- John I. Brooks at Fayetteville State University
- lots of others out there