The conference simulation can be a fun and valuable activity in a history classroom. Historical mock trials, conferences, and games have all found there way into the history classroom (Michael Harcourt recently wrote on this blog about his experiences working with mock trials). My question is, do they engender historical thinking?
Every December, I hope to explore this question by engaging my Grade 10, 11 & 12 students in various historical simulations. The students end the year imagining, playing, and interacting with historical actors.
My Grade 10 Social Studies class enacts the Canadian Confederation conferences; my IB Grade 11s take on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919; and, my Grade 12s take part in both the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences of 1945 in a matter of hours.
My trepidation as always is, are such activities valuable for historical understanding? My general position, after several years, is an overwhelming yes.
This is for several reasons. Firstly, such mock conferences offer students an opportunity to engage in the simulated circumstances in which historical actors made decisions. My students made errors and spoke in ways that ultimately they did not in the past, but in researching and “preforming “ the past they gained valuable insight into why decisions were made and what was at stake. In other words it helped them take historical perspectives.
It was not initially easy for students to understand why the peacemakers in Paris ignored so many of Woodrow Wilson’s principles or why so many nations rejected a Racial Equality Clause, but through the conference they realized some of the complexity of these decisions.
Of course there is always some presentism in such activities, but as long as the teacher is aware as to when to cut short ridiculous fictions and promote critical understandings it can work. Students are initially tempted to reveal or use future events the historical actors of the time did not have access to, but this can (and should) be addressed. By the end of the 1919 conference my students were correcting each other, with one student respectfully reminding another “delegate’” that no one at the table has heard of Hitler or his ideas and therefore his point was invalid.
It is fun for students to pretend they were Lloyd George, Stalin, Truman, Wilson, or John A. Macdonald, but for it to be successful and valuable it involves careful preparation, facilitation, and at times, teacher intervention.
I used approximately four 77-minute classes for each conference. Students had two classes to prepare their role, understanding their delegate’s position on a variety of issues I had prepared. The conference itself took place over the next two days with students presenting ideas, debating, arguing, and finally voting on resolutions.
There are many print and online resources to help prepare for such conferences. I have provided some links below which I recommend:
Canadian Confederation Conference Simulation: http://tc2.ca/pdf/Curriculum%20Resources/Confederation/Confederation.pdf
An excellent TC2 Resource written by Greg Buium & Janet Thompson
Paris Peace Conference/ Treaty of Versailles Simulation Websites & PDFs*
Yalta/Potsdam Conference Websites and Articles*
*If these links are slow to work, cut & paste into a browser and they will download
Finally, in my opinion conference simulations do offer students a powerful way to engage in historical perspective taking. There will always be an element of play and historical inaccuracy but they offer, from what I have seen from my students, a great insight into how people thought, acted, and made decisions in the past.