Play trains thinking

Suppose you represent a small country that is allowed to participate in the European political game.

Together with your big friends Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia, you are one of 200 attendees at the Congress of Vienna. The aim of the congress is to create a Europe a balance of power to prevent anyone from rising again after Napoleon to conquer Europe.

You deliberate by sending each other letters and memos. You see the correspondence going back and forth: one country gets constant mail, the other gets an occasional note. You have lots of ideas so you write drily along. Suddenly, you see the representatives of Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia walking to the corridor with each other. What! You want to get up and join, but you are stopped. This is a privilege for the four big countries. They get a moment to confer verbally with each other. As a small country, you sit and sulk. But you can’t change anything about this. How much influence do you actually have on the world stage?

If you immerse yourself in history, then read mostly about these historical events. But how cool is it to experience it a little yourself! And not just cool; the experience, the details, the story… everything sticks better. Since Koen Henskens told me the above, I can very well imagine the Vienna Congress, with all its power relations.

Koen Henskens trains history teachers at the HAN University of Applied Sciences. He is a big proponent of games and playful forms of work in the classroom. He shares many of those games on his  website and during the lockdown, he and his children made these videos about active historical thinking.

Koen told me about the game in which all students in his class participated in the Vienna Congress and were assigned a country. Together, the students in this game have to discuss a new European balance of power. In addition, each country/student is also given a personal goal. Communication is by writing notes. Bodes walk around the classroom to pass the notes around.

He notices that at the beginning of the game, students often don’t really know what to do, but gradually it becomes more and more political: how do you make yourself stand out in the big pile of mail at an important country? Can you get others to support you? Are there alliances to make? What can you promise and what do you have to bluff?

In the course of the game, some countries get extra advantages. For example, they are allowed to consult with each other in the corridor for 5 minutes. An experience entirely along the lines of the Vienna Congress where Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia had discussed their plans beforehand. You can feel the frustration of the students representing the small countries!

When Koen plays this game with his students, he occasionally stops the game in between. He discusses what he sees happening and what the students are experiencing. Even at the end, he takes the time to discuss the game after and link it to the historical event.

The making of the president spel
Spel The Making of The President

If a game makes you identify with a country or a historical event, the lesson material sticks much better.

Active historical thinking

History subject exercises critical and investigative thinking. An example is causal reasoning where students reason about cause and effect of events. In addition, pupils and students learn to analyse sources and evidence, make historical connections, describe, compare and/or explain historical phenomena and reason chronologically.

A game like that of the Vienna Congress exercises active historical thinking. Students face dilemmas themselves. They are encouraged to think about possible options and then have to make a conscious choice about them. Students do not follow the steps in the book, but have their own influence. They have to substantiate their choices and also experience the consequences of certain choices.

What requirements does a good educational game meet?

Game is always a simplification of reality. ‘With existing games, you should always check to what extent the game fits your learning objectives.’ Let’s take the Vienna Congress again for a moment. With a quartet, for example, students do not get the experience of power relations as they do if they are allowed to think about new power relations themselves.

Incidentally, not all games have the right mechanism for an educational game. Koen does not actually use games from his game cupboard: ‘Those often provide a setting, but the learning benefit is too limited for the learning goals I have.’ Therefore, Koen makes many games and game formats himself using, combining and building on mechanisms from existing games.

He has a number of requirements for his games:

  • Short instruction – so students/learners can get started quickly.
  • Easily copyable – hence your Koen’s games are in the form of a powerpoint, handout and/or pdf.
  • Can be done in one lesson – in which you both give the instruction and discuss the game afterwards. In doing so, Koen tips: ‘Don’t give any information beforehand and only give the historical content at the end.’
  • Re-playability – and with minor adjustments can be played in both 2nd and 4th year on a different level, for example. The adjustments then lie in the length of the reading text or the game objective.

*Note: I have translated this text using Deepl, supplemented by my own knowledge of English. It is possible that there are some language errors in the text. If you have any comments on disturbing errors, please let me know.

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