The active role students took in the design of the game mirrors the active role they take in their own learning during game play. That's because the game creates a link between knowledge and experience in a way that matters to students. Students have a need to know about the Trojan War, because knowing about the Trojan War makes them better leaders in their own civilization, and then their team has a better chance at succeeding in the game. Because students care about succeeding in the game -- through their own experience -- they come to value the knowledge that leads to skillful decision-making and, coincidentally, academic achievement. And their relationship to history deepens. Darnell observes, "When you see a group that has a dictatorship, that group will make decisions in like ten seconds. Whereas the groups that have democracies won't come to a decision for five or ten minutes. They take so much longer, and that's a reflection of how the real world works. The kids experience it, and we discuss it." The students are transformed from consumers of static historical facts into participants in the decisions and processes that shape history and make our civilization what it is today.
Brennan has used Historia in his own classroom since its inception, and the kinds of questions he now gets from students are of a much higher order. This year, while studying Hammarabi's code, for instance, one student asked, "Why would a government make a law system that created fear? Why would a government want people to fear it?" "That's a brilliant question!" Brennan exclaims, "I don't know the answer to that question."
Two years ago, the game moved beyond Brennan's and Darnell's classrooms, and beyond the school's gifted-and-talented program, thanks to word-of-mouth among Lanier students. It was the students who convinced sixth-grade social studies teacher Jennifer Pung to bring the game to her classroom. And so Historia had its first test with the school's sizable English-language learner population and with students in individualized education programs. After another round of careful re-calibrations, the game is performing well, so well that it is being piloted in other Houston area schools this fall. "When you're in the classroom, it's sort of organized chaos," Pung admits. "But the students are much more excited to come to class. You can hear them gossiping about it in the hallways!"
After class, the sixth-graders clamor to share their perspective. "The best part of Historia," says one bright-eyed student named Sophie, "is being able to create your own history. Because not only do you get to learn about other countries during that time period, you get to learn what has happened and what can happen to you." This is precisely the idea that inspires Brennan and Darnell to keep investing their energies in Historia. As they work to move the game beyond Houston, they imagine giving every kid a deep memorable experience of the constant change that lies at the heart of history and drives the rise and fall of civilizations and human fortunes. "What keeps us going," says Darnell, "is the fact that in the end kids are going to have a history of their very own civilization. These kids can write their own textbook. They don't need a traditional textbook. They haven't just learned history, they've learned to make it, like leaders and historians."
Image: Brian Waniewski.