Teaching Hard History: Is There a Role for Simulations?

Simulations encourage students to “learn by doing.” The goal in using simulations in the classroom is for students to understand a concept or historical experience by acting it out. Creating a kinesthetic experience isn’t quite the same as reading about something in a book.

While it might be appropriate for students to learn about a cattle drive by pushing pieces of paper with brooms down a school hallway, or simulating a French Salon conversation by discussing art on the walls of the classroom, simulations should never be used to help students understand cruelty between humans. The potential for harming students emotionally and socially by asking them to play out periods of inhumanity is just too great. We recommend avoiding simulations for the following difficult topics:

    • Slavery and the Triangle Trade
    • Indigenous peoples’ interactions with European conquerors
    • The Holocaust
    • Genocide
    • Japanese American internment
    • Discrimination
    • War crimes
    • Racism and sexism
    • Sex and sexuality

While each of these topics is important for students to learn and understand, there are methods that are better suited for these difficult (and often emotionally laden) topics. Here are some helpful online sources that summarize the downside of using simulations and provide guidance on other ways to teach these important topics.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Why simulations are not the best route for hard history

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), while simulation-type activities may appear to be a compelling way to engage students on topics and events involving genocide and oppression such as the Holocaust, slavery, racial segregation, internment of Japanese-Americans, etc., we strongly caution against using such activities for the following reasons:

  • They are pedagogically unsound because they trivialize the experience of the victims and can leave students with the impression at the conclusion of the activity that they truly know what it was like to experience these injustices.
  • They stereotype group behavior and distort historical reality by reducing groups of people and their experiences and actions to one-dimensional representations.
  • They can reinforce negative views of the victims.
  • They can put students in the position of defending and/or identifying with the oppressors.
  • They impede critical analysis by oversimplifying complex historical events and human behavior, leaving students with a skewed view of history.
  • They disconnect these events from the context of global history.
  • They can be emotionally upsetting or damaging for students who are sensitive and/or who may identify with the victims (ADL).


Source: Library of Congress

Alternatives to simulation activities from the ADL

While we cannot stress enough how important it is to teach these themes and give accurate representations of history, below are examples of effective and pedagogically-sound methods that can be used instead. These activities will foster a sense of empathy and help students understand the motivations, thoughts, feelings, and actions of those who lived through terrible experiences.

  • Provide ample opportunities for students to examine primary source materials, including photographs, artwork, diary entries, letters, government documents, and visuals. Such exploration encourages a deeper level of interest and inquiry on a range of topics from many perspectives and in proper historical context.
  • Assign reflective writing exercises or lead class discussions that explore various aspects of human behavior such as scapegoating or making difficult moral choices. These activities allow students to develop compassion and empathy, share how they feel about what they’re learning, and consider how it has meaning in their own lives.
  • Invite the voices (through a variety of strategies) of survivors and other eyewitnesses to share their stories with students (ADL).

One of the goals for teaching about these horrific historical events is for students to determine their own roles and responsibilities in the world around them. To advance this thinking and learning, we encourage teachers to give students opportunities to consider meaningful actions they can take in their schools and communities when they see injustice or are faced with difficult moral and ethical decisions.


Source: iStock.com/Heimsmyndir

Facilitate these themes through discussion

In an article from Cult of Pedagogy, Jennifer Gonzalez (2019) expanded about what teachers can do in the classroom instead of simulation-based learning:

“Rather than trying to re-create these traumatic experiences, Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries (director of the Teaching Hard History Project) recommends a more thoughtful, discussion-based approach where teachers use literature or other texts to learn about particular phenomena then ask students to think about and discuss the decisions people made in those circumstances.

‘You don’t say, hey, what would you do if you were this person? You say, what did this person do? And what were some of their options? And so you’re inviting children on their own terms to put themselves in the shoes of another person simply by thinking about the decisions that they have in their lives,’ says Jeffries.

These kinds of conversations should be happening all year, not just as part of an isolated unit. Harmful simulations, Jeffries says, are part of a larger problem of teaching topics like slavery in isolation. ‘We do such a poor job of integrating these difficult subjects, throughout the curriculum over the years, but rather we just sort of drop it in. In Ohio, they get a little Underground Railroad in the third grade, and then they don’t deal with early American history and slavery until the eighth grade. So there’s these two moments with nothing in the middle.’

Instead, we can integrate our study of these issues throughout the curriculum. The Teaching Hard History curriculum created by Teaching Tolerance offers a solid collection of resources and lessons that help us do just that.

Teachers who are used to offering students active-learning lessons might be concerned that giving up certain simulations will make their classrooms less engaging, but Jeffries points out that engagement doesn’t necessarily have to equal fun.

‘Education is not always entertainment,’ he says. ‘We just have to accept that. Sometimes it’s just sitting down and literally having a conversation, getting students—even at the younger ages—just to think critically about things in conversation, in dialogue, without trying to make it entertaining. Because it is traumatic. And we have to treat it with the sensitivity it deserves (Gonzalez 2019).'”


For further research, we recommend these resources:

Teaching Tolerance – Another Slavery Simulation: We Must Do Better

Teaching Tolerance – Classroom Simulations: Proceed With Caution

Teaching Tolerance – Teaching Hard History: Grades 6-12

Teaching Tolerance – A Framework for Teaching American Slavery

Engage students with appropriate activities that can teach hard history

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ADL. Why simulation activities should not be used. Retrieved February 11, 2020, from https://www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/why-simulation-activities-should-not-be-used

Gonzalez, J. (2019, July 07). Think twice before doing another historical simulation. Retrieved January 20, 2020, from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/classroom-simulations

Header photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Aaron Willis is the Chief Learning Officer (CLO) for Social Studies School Service, where he has worked in the field of interactive and digital education for more than two decades. His primary areas of interest include brain-based imaging, hands-on learning, and evidence-based reading and writing strategies. Dr. Willis oversees the development of Active Classroom and Nystrom World with an eye toward implementing the latest pedagogic strategies in a manner that is intuitive and easy to use for both teachers and students. Based in Los Angeles, California, he travels frequently to work with teachers, focusing on practical solutions to their professional challenges.

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