How to make historical simulations adaptable, engaging and manageable

How to make
historical simulations
adaptable, engaging
and manageable
Dan Moorhouse suggests that history
teachers are sometimes put off role-play
or simulations because the amount of
preparation – intellectual and practical
– appears both time-consuming and
expensive. He argues that effective
simulations need be neither of these.
Building on recent work on roleplay and simulations such as that by
Dawson and Luff, Moorhouse suggests
some principles for keeping historical
simulations both manageable and
engaging. Using a range of examples
from different historical periods and
for different age groups, he illustrates
the value of simplicity in developing
historical thinking through active
learning. Drawing on his own experience,
Moorhouse also offers practical advice
for supporting pupils’ thinking both
throughout and after the simulation.
Role-play, living graphs, hot seating and physical representations
of historical events have received much attention recently. Luff has
challenged us to work outside the comfort zone and Dawson reminded
us of the benefits of active learning techniques. 1 The logic behind these
techniques is clear: visualise, challenge, engage, break down concepts
and offer pupils a chance to feel through history at the same time as
thinking through the history. There have been several adaptations of
these ideas over the years, many of which will be familiar to readers of
Teaching History. This article shares and explores something similar in
intention, but a little different in design and application: simulations in
the classroom. The notion of a simulation in the classroom is nothing
particularly new, Bruner wrote about them in the 1960s, Birt and Nichol
in the 1970s and the advent of the ICT age brought about a range of
online simulations and a resurgence of interest in the principles behind
them.2 In my experience of working with and talking to a wide range of
history teachers at conferences and training events, there are still very few
teachers actually using simulations. They take time to plan, can incur a
mammoth photocopying bill and are often over-complicated by the vast
array of characters, themes, concepts and events that are intertwined in
the chronology of whatever event is being simulated. In the following
pages I doubt whether I shall suggest anything original; after all, history
simulations have been theorised and put into practice for generations.3
What I do hope to do is provide an example of how the complexity of
planning an effective simulation can be overcome by offering a simple
framework that can be applied to an array of events.
There is an incredibly simple formula that can be applied to creating
simulations. It is easy to apply to different situations, simple to plan
around, adaptable enough to be used with young, old, gifted or otherwise
and results in engaging, relevant and thought-provoking discussion,
evaluation and analysis. What, then, is the recipe for success?
My suggested ingredients
The ingredients are:
Dan Moorhouse
Dan Moorhouse is Head of History
at Wyke Manor School
(11-18 comprehensive),
10 Teaching History 133
December 2008
• one major turning point;
• 5 groups of people involved in the changes;
• 4 changes or events that feature in the chronology.
That is it. That is all you need to create an effective simulation.
The rest is easy.
The Historical Association
Figure 1: A group of pupils working together to respond to a new situation
Here is an example of how this simple list of ingredients is
mixed together to become a recipe for success.
Major turning point:
the industrial revolution, in this case I shall apply it to my
local area, Bradford.
5 groups of people involved in the changes:
1. the woolcombers
2. mill owners
3. the wealthy (I use Titus Salt and introduce the notion of
4. local sheep farmers
5. lord mayor and council
4 changes or events that feature within the chronology of the
industrial revolution:
1. invention of the wool combing machine
2. opening of a canal
3. introduction of the steam power in mills
4. arrival of railways
It will be obvious that these lists are far from exhaustive. They
do not need to be so. All that is required is a range of opinions,
offered by the different groups in society and a range of events
that will affect those groups in different ways. Moreover, these
can easily be adapted in order to address specific objectives, for
example by incorporating the Reform Act, Luddite riots or the
granting of corporation status to the town. This provides more
than enough stimulus material for pupils to realise that changes
impact on people in different ways. They have enough material
and examples on offer to see how opinions can, and do, become
polarised. There is scope for them to identify issues that may
concern the townsfolk, be it the employment implications of
the machines, the trading benefits of the transport revolution
or the health implications of these combined.
How does the
simulation work?
Again, a simple model can be followed which will reach a
range of objectives:
Place pupils in 5 groups. Provide each group with a statement
summarising the role that they are taking within the
simulation. Ask the pupils to consider a number of issues
that would be pertinent to that social group at the time (see
Figure 2).
Then, tell the pupils that events over time change
circumstances. In groups, they are going to react to these
events in order to develop an understanding of how the
events led to change. Ask each group to outline their views,
desires and opinions as they are at the beginning of the
simulation. These can be recorded by the groups, noted by
the teacher or simply stated, depending on how you intend
to develop the simulation.
Now provide each group with details of the first event. Ask
them to think about the implications for themselves. You
can direct questions at groups that are specific to that social
Teaching History 133
December 2008
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Group 1
Is there anything that
you would like to see
changed or improved
or are you satisfied with
life as it is?
What concerns would
you have at this point in
Group 2
Group 3
Group 4
Group 5
As someone who is
interested in social
welfare what would
be the major areas of
concern for you at the
What type of
developments would
enable you to increase
output whilst still using
the same amount of
What sorts of things
would you be able to
do to help businesses
What changes to the
national infrastructure
would you like to see?
Discussion points:
The year is 1800. You
are the Lord Mayor of
Bradford. You are very
proud of the growing
reputation of the
town as a producer
of excellent wool. You
hope that Industry in
the town will be able
to flourish over the
coming years. You are
very supportive of the
mill owners.
What types of
improvement to the
national infrastructure
are you interested in
What changes to the
national infrastructure
would you like to see?
Discussion points:
The year is 1800. You
run a textiles company
from the wool
exchange in Bradford.
You are happy with the
quality of your product
and are starting to get
orders from all over
the country. Demand
is far outweighing
supply at the moment:
a lot of potential profit
is being lost. You are
relatively wealthy and
are keen to expand
your business.
What is your major
concern at the moment?
How do you think
you could make a
Discussion points:
The year is 1800.
You own a large farm
that provides dairy
products and rears
sheep. You sell your
good in Bradford and
sometimes in Leeds.
You are interested in
developing your farm
as you believe that you
can continue to profit
from the local wool
trade but also from
increasing the output
of the farm. Demand is
rising but you cannot
afford any more land.
Discussion points:
The year is 1800. You
are extremely wealthy,
having inherited a lot
of money when your
uncle died. You are
interested in improving
the life of people in the
town of Bradford. You
have many contacts
and are well liked by
both rich and poor.
You have no business
interests and are not
interested in making
any further profit,
as you are wealthy
enough as it is.
Figure 2: The Industrial Revolution in Bradford – groups and initial areas for discussion
The Year is 1800. You
make your living as
a wool comber in the
villages surrounding
Bradford. You and
your family form
a vital part of the
Domestic system in
place in the region.
The family rears the
sheep, shears them
and treats the wool
prior to it being spun
down and cropped in
the city centre. You
have to work every day
of the week but have a
moderate income.
Make a note of your
Discussion points:
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December 2008
Teaching History 133
Figure 3: Industrial development cards
Development 1
Development 2
Samuel Lister, a local entrepreneur, has
developed a machine which can comb wool.
This has led to a rapid change is the way that
Bradford produces Wool. Factories are quickly
changing to mechanised methods and the
city’s output of woollen goods is higher than
ever before.
Following the success of the Bridgewater Canal
and several other man-made waterways, a
group of investors has joined together and
built a canal stretching from Leeds to Liverpool.
Bradford’s industrialists have subscribed to the
scheme and an ‘offshoot’ of the Canal runs
from Saltaire to the centre of Bradford. You are
also coming up for re-election in Bradford.
Development 3
Development 4
A new machine has been developed that can
cleanly cut cloth to size and in a variety of
shapes. This new ‘Frame’ can do the work of
a cropper; is relatively inexpensive to buy and
easy and fast to use. Factory owners across
Bradford have bought these machines and laid
off the croppers who had previously done this
difficult job. The croppers are rebelling against
the mass unemployment. They are rioting and
smashing machines.
The Great Northern Railway Company has
opened two stations in Bradford. These link
Bradford with the other great centres of
commerce, such as Leeds, Manchester and
Liverpool. Heavy goods can now be transported
around the country with ease. Demand for
products made in Bradford soars as a result.
Many workers and labourers from across the
country head for Bradford and set up home
here. Thousands of new homes are built.
group’s own particular needs and concerns, which I do on
development cards (see Figure 3).
At this stage, the simulation is quite adaptable. With groups
who find it difficult to grasp the implications of change I tend
to provide a time limit for discussion and acquire feedback
from each group. This can lead to discussion about the way
in which opinions have changed and the reasons for these
changes. Who is better off? Who is worse off? What might
Group 1, 2 or 3 want to do about the changing circumstances
in which they live? This approach is also quite useful if
a simulation is being used to introduce an enquiry, as it
provides a range of questions and issues from the pupils that
can then be addressed in future lessons.4
With groups who are undertaking the simulation towards
the end of an enquiry, perhaps as an overview prior to
assessment, or with groups who handle the implications of
change confidently, I prefer to add an element of uncertainty
to the proceedings. By not stopping and accounting for
changes in opinion from each group, you can build up a
greater appreciation of the uncertainty of daily life and of the
fact that often the changing opinions are not communicated
effectively between different groups within society. This adds
an element of realism: how would pupils react to situation B
if they had not yet got their heads around situation A? That
is often the situation that people have found themselves
facing in the past, so it is important that pupils appreciate
it. In order to achieve this simply, do not stop after the first
development or event has been given out for discussion.
Instead of saying, ‘5 minutes to think this through’ for the
first development, ask them to consider how the changes
would affect them and let them get on with it. Then hand
out another event soon afterwards, say 2 or 3 minutes after
the first one. The result? Usually panic and complaints from
pupils – but the point is made: this is simply a reflection of
the way that people would react to a rapid succession of
events that affected them. The ‘real world’ doesn’t always
grant you enough time to think things through, to gather
your thoughts or to implement a policy fully before the
next big issue is thrust upon you (see Figure 3 for examples
of development cards). After the almost certain grumbles
have subsided, give groups a reasonable amount of time
to consider both of the events that have been given to
them. Then ask each group to outline the way in which
they would react to the circumstances, how they felt when
another change was thrust upon them and what the likely
implications of these changes would be (see Figure 5 for
examples of issues groups can be asked to discuss).
Whether the first or second model has been followed you
have now reached a point where each group has seen how
their lives would have been affected. They have also heard
how other groups have changed their opinions. This allows
exploration of the reasons why things have changed, the
various feelings about these circumstances and the range
Teaching History 133
December 2008
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Figure 4: Pupils working together to prepare a response
of consequences that a few apparently simple and limited
events can have.
To illustrate how these can develop into events of enormous
significance, repeat the process with the remaining events.
Again, you can stop after a specified period of time to ensure
that knowledge and understanding is being developed
whilst contemplating the impact. Alternatively, the element
of uncertainty can be developed further through random
issuing of the events.
Incorporating a debriefing session at specific points in the
simulation ensures that pupils are reflecting on events and
their impact. See the work of Dawson and Banham for a
discussion of the importance of such debriefing sessions.5
What are the
advantages of this model?
Apart from being simple and easy to adapt it results in a range
of objectives being met. For example, in the exercise outlined
in Figures 2, 3 and 5, I wanted reasonably able pupils to grasp
the pace of change, to understand that there was a range of
consequences of events and to realise that the implications
of change had wide-reaching social, economic and political
consequences. The exercise provided a platform for the
group to develop analytical skills because it could, and did,
lead to debate about the decisions that were made and the
way that different groups of society viewed each other. Notes
made by the group and by me were then used to formulate
plans for an essay on the implications of industrialisation
in Bradford. With the example given, pupils had access to
a range of sources and textbooks and were able to pinpoint
the date when each event occurred and, in some cases,
place the events alongside other events that were happening
14 Teaching History 133
December 2008
during this period. Having done so, they were later able to
understand the complexity of issues such as Chartism and
reforms of working conditions. They were also able to link the
events to changes in welfare and public health legislation.
The simulation has also been used with pupils who are
not so quick to make links between these events. Working
through the exercise with one of our lower-attaining groups
we adapted the text to match the literacy levels of pupils
and the questions they were asked to consider. Using a
simple mechanism of asking the group to mark their level
of happiness out of 5, we were able to track the way that
groups’ moods changed over the course of the simulation
and identify the events and changes that led to the change in
mood. This information was then applied to an adaptation
of Banham’s ‘Grand Prix’ to address the question, ‘What was
the impact of the Industrial Revolution?’ 6
The same developments and groups within society have
been used with GCSE pupils studying public health. The
discussion points were altered in order to ask pupils to
analyse the reasons for legislative change and to consider
the reasons for the development of pressure groups such as
the Health of Towns Association, along with looking at the
implications of increased voting rights.
The model of 5 groups and 4 events can be applied to a
range of other situations in much the same way. As with
the model outlined here, there are some significant issues
missing from these lists but as with my industrial revolution
example, these issues will often be raised as a result of the
discussion points, or could be added to create a longer and
more complex simulation.
The Historical Association
Figure 5: Discussion points for groups
Development 1
Development 2
Development 3
Development 4
Group 1
Group 1
Group 1
Group 1
What welfare provisions are
available to the suddenly
unemployed wool combers?
What fears would you and your
family have?
What possible options are open
to you?
What are the likely outcomes of
this canal for you?
What prospects for work are there How has the coming of the
for you?
railways affected your life?
Will your livelihood be more or
less secure as a result?
What options are open to you?
What do you do to try and solve
the problems that you, your
Is this development good or bad
for the people of Bradford in your family and your friends are now
What reasons are there for
introducing the machinery to the
mills in Bradford?
Group 2
What are the positive outcomes
of this invention for your
Group 2
How will this new form of
transport aid you business?
How will your workers react to
this invention?
Why are you concerned about
the introduction of the Woolcombing machine?
What sort of thing could wealthy
sympathisers realistically do to
help those in need?
Group 4
Group 3
How will the canal help to
improve conditions in Bradford?
What fears do you now have
about the future for poorer
people working in Bradford?
In what ways could you
benefit financially from this
What does the canal enable you
to do that you couldn’t achieve
In what ways might you lose
out financially in the short term
as a result of the changes this
development would lead to?
How might the canal make it
cheaper for you to farm?
In ways do you gain from the
transport revolution?
How has the development of
new technology improved your
What, if anything, would you say
have been the negative outcomes
of the industrial revolution?
Group 3
Group 3
What arguments can be put
forward to suggest that the mill
owners do not care about the
What welfare legislation do you
want to see introduced as a
result of the changes you have
seen so far?
Group 4
Has the process of
industrialisation improved the
quality of life for people in
Group 2
Group 2
What are the likely threats to your What effects will the machine
share of the market place?
have on your business?
What further developments
would allow you to increase sales?
Will the purchase of these
machines by lots of mill owners’
Are there any negative outcomes
impact upon the life of the
of the introduction of this
workers in Bradford?
Group 3
What are the positive and
negative consequences of the
coming of the railways?
How has Industrialisation led to
poorer conditions in towns and
What could be done to improve
the situation?
Who’s duty is it to make these
improvements? (Why?)
Group 4
Group 4
How is this new technology going What type of developments
would enable you to increase
to impact upon your business?
output whilst still using the same
What are the benefits of
amount of land?
increased technology for farmers?
What changes to the national
infrastructure would you like to
Are you happy that the woolcombing industry has been
Group 5
Group 5
How will the opening of the canal
Why would the Lord Mayor be
very pleased with the invention of help you to win the election?
the wool combing machine?
Who will gain from the
introduction of the Canal?
Would the Lord Mayor and the
aldermen have to deal with any
Will anybody be upset by the
awkward situations as a result of introduction of this new form of
the changes to the way wool was transport?
processed in Bradford?
Group 5
Group 5
As Lord Mayor should your
sympathies be with the factory
owners or the workers?
What action should you take
to ensure that the riots don’t
How does this improve Bradford
What should you be looking to
improve in the city?
Only landowners could vote
at the time. Why would the
Lord Mayor be pleased that
Industrialisation was occurring?
Teaching History 133
December 2008
The Historical Association
Three alternative uses
Try these variations on the above ideas:
Simulations enable pupils to develop their understanding
of the context in which events occurred. We can use them
to make it clear that issues were complex whilst breaking
these complexities down into accessible chunks. Through
effective de-briefing and follow-up exercises, we help to
improve the way in which pupils go on to communicate their
understanding of causation, change or the consequences
of events. Simulations of this type can provide an effective
overview, or a summary of events. They lend themselves to
highly active, pacey sessions in which pupils are engaged and
allow for a wide range of issues to be covered in a relatively
short period of time.
1 Causes of the First World War
Groups: Great Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary,
France, and Turkey
Starting point: the situation as of 1900
Events: Bosnian Crisis 1908, Morocco 1911,
assassination of Franz Ferdinand, 28 July
1914 and German ultimatum to Russia,
31 July 1914.
2 Roman occupation of Britain
Groups: Claudius, Verica, Caractacus, a trader and
the Druids.
Starting point: Caesar’s withdrawal from Britain
Events: Claudius’ accession, Caractacus’ invasion
of the territories of the Atrebates, Roman
invasion, the capture of Caractacus.
3 Life in Nazi Germany
Groups: Farmers, industrial workers, Jews, women,
party member.
Starting point: Hitler appointed Chancellor
Events: Enabling Act, Nuremburg laws,
introduction of 4-year plan, re-occupation
of the Ruhr
Thanks to Jonathan Henry for taking the photographs
Luff, I. (2001) ‘Beyond “I speak, you listen, boy!” Exploring diversity of attitude
and experiences through speaking and listening’, Teaching History, 105, Talking
History Edition; Luff. I. (2003) ‘Stretching the strait jacket of assessment: use of
roleplay and practical demonstration to enrich pupils’ experience of history at GCSE
and beyond’, Teaching History, 113, Creating Progress Edition; Dawson. I. (2004)
Letter published in Teaching History,114, Making History Personal Edition. See also
comments on
Bruner, J. (1960) The Process of Education, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University
Press; Birt. D. and Nichol. J. (1975) Games and Simulations in History, Harlow:
Longman; see also an on-line seminar led by Jon Simkin: On-line simulations
in history:
For an example of a realistic, manageable role play, see Lyon, G. (2001)
‘Reflecting on rights: teaching pupils about pre-1932 British politics using a
realistic role play’, Teaching History, 103, Puzzling History Edition.
This suggestion has been made by Dawson with reference to other forms of active
learning. See
Dawson, I. and Banham, D. (2002) ‘Thinking from the inside: je suis le roi’,
Teaching History, 108, Performing History Edition
Banham, D. (2000) ‘The return of King John: using depth to strengthen overview in
the teaching of political change’, Teaching History, 99, Curriculum Planning Edition
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14 -19 CHANGES