Listen to my interview with Hasan Kwame Jeffries (transcript):
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What better way is there to learn about something than to actually live it? That’s the thinking behind classroom simulations, where teachers attempt to re-create an event and have students act as participants. Once they’ve walked in the shoes of the people who are actually part of a given situation, students should, in theory, reach new levels of understanding about that situation.
And for many academic topics, this holds true. Students will understand our legal system better if they participate in a mock trial. They’ll gain a deeper appreciation for what led to the Boston Tea Party after playing out the roles of colonists being taxed. Virtual simulations offer even more possibilities: A digital chemistry lab, for example, will allow students to mix many more chemicals and see their results far more easily than if they tried to gather and mix the same chemicals in real life.
But when it comes to certain events—those related to slavery, the holocaust, war crimes, or any other event where people experienced violence or trauma—simulations can do more harm than good. Although teachers who conduct these activities do so because they want students to develop deeper empathy for the people involved, they end up putting students in a position to inflict pain on each other and experience real trauma, all without much educational benefit at all.
We can do better.
To learn more about this issue, I talked with Hasan Kwame Jeffries, history professor and host of the Teaching Hard History podcast. In our conversation, we discussed why certain historical simulations are harmful, why teachers should stop doing them, and what they should be doing instead to teach those challenging topics well.
What is a classroom simulation?
“A simulation is basically an attempt to re-create a situation or a phenomenon from the past,” Jeffries explains, “to put students in a re-created environment as much as possible so that they can generate a stronger sense of empathy, particularly for those who suffered as a result of this historical situation or phenomenon.”
When they are designed well, simulations allow students to gain a deeper understanding of a particular situation, like this one about farming in the Gilded Age.
“Teachers are gravitating to simulations out of a desire to be better,” Jeffries says, “to think creatively and get students engaged in the classroom.”
Unfortunately, those good intentions don’t always get the desired results.
How Can Some Simulations Harm Students?
Problems with classroom simulations arise when teachers attempt to simulate traumatic experiences.
One example is the New York classroom where African American students were asked to play the role of enslaved people in a mock slave auction. Other simulations ask students to lie side by side on the floor to simulate the horrific Middle Passage across the Atlantic.
How do these experiences cause problems?
“Part of the problem with trying to simulate any traumatic experience is that you can’t actually recreate it,” Jeffries explains. “You can’t really simulate what it would feel like to be dehumanized on an auction block and separated from your parents. What you would need to do to actually re-create these scenarios would put you in jail.”
“So then what are you left with?” he continues. “You’re left with not only the potential for traumatizing children, but you’re reinforcing contemporary inequality: We cannot divorce the present from the past. We still live in a white supremacist world, and children are bringing that in. We don’t talk about racism and white supremacy and inequality in our society for the most part. But then we’re going to create this one-off classroom situation in which we’re going to sell black kids. What it does is create confusion on the parts of both students of color and white students. It can reinforce stereotypes rather than disrupting them. And especially when you begin to isolate children of color in these scenarios, it can really create a traumatic experience because you’re putting these children in what can be intense, sort of under-the-microscope conditions in which they are being treated as unequal. And then what are you doing to repair the damage after that?”
Some teachers might wonder if this problem can be solved by randomly assigning roles so that a student of any ethnicity might play the role of an enslaved person or a slave owner, or even deliberately reversing roles, having white students act as the enslaved people in the simulations.
Jeffries says no. “Essentially you would be telling these other children, okay, you’re going to be the black people for today, right? That doesn’t really help, because they can just walk in it, and then they walk out of it. And then how do they carry that into the playground? It’s like, okay, I had my black experience, and that is about being sold. In other words, even pretending that we’re going to do something that is race-neutral around a subject that is not race-neutral doesn’t really help the scenario either.”
Another problem with these types of simulations is that they run the risk of treating the subject matter too lightly, of trivializing it. When students are put in uncomfortable situations, they might laugh or goof around in response to that discomfort. “That’s a response to being insecure in the moment,” Jeffries says. “And that can have this sort of ripple effect that then trivializes a subject that you do not want to trivialize.”
He also warns that some online experiences can have a similar effect. “We have to be careful of the gamification of history. One of the most common online simulations is about enslaved people running away. I actually like the idea of having students think about the tough choices and decisions that it would take for somebody to escape slavery, but you have to create the right scenario for students to understand what the issues are. You can’t just have the character suddenly just wake up one morning and say, okay, do I leave or do I stay?”
To be worthwhile, an online simulation will have to provide more complicated, nuanced situations. “What are the consequences? What are the costs? Who’s being left behind?” Jeffries says. “There are so many other permutations that have to be included. And if they are not included, then I think you wind up going back to trivializing this history. If they’re not getting a full sense of the scope, of the conditions and circumstances, and the reasons why people would decide to escape and stay, then you’re actually doing a disservice. They’re learning less than what they should be learning.”
What Should Teachers Do Instead?
Rather than try to re-create these traumatic experiences, Jeffries 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.”
And 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 be integrating 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 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.”