I recently had the opportunity to step into a Trench Warfare Simulation in a 10th grade Modern World History class. As I walked into the room, I found the tables turned on their sides and students throwing paper balls at each other. What started as an initial observation of student mutiny quickly turned into an observation of profound student learning.
Students in Mr. Barker-Hook’s class were learning about trench warfare in World War I and its human cost. To help students grasp what happened, he turned his classroom into a mini battlefield with an attacking army trying to cross “No Man’s Land” to reach the opposing trench. Students were asked to move at a speed that would be the equivalent of running across the battlefield, yet no matter the rules put in place to help the attackers, they could not make it across.
Through the simulation, students could feel the hopelessness that most soldiers felt as they charged across the battlefield. Students shared that even though it was a simulation and people were using paper balls, they still felt anxiety and fear when trying to cross “No Man’s Land.” They also began to question the purpose of the strategy and dove into the human impact, which is well documented by the History Channel in their series, Life in the Trenches of World War I.
Simulations are a powerful learning tool. There has been an increase in the use of simulations by medical and nursing schools through multi-million dollar investments in specialized simulation classrooms because it gives students experience beyond the textbook. A 2016 National Institute of Health study showed that simulations were very useful in understanding how students will react in the face of stress, as well as to reinforce what they have learned in class. It is a particularly effective learning model for high school history classes because it allows students to build an emotional connection to historical events and to experience a small degree of what it may have felt like to live through those times. More importantly, it gives students the opportunity to practice taking the perspective of those who experienced these events. By experiencing events themselves “first-hand,” students are able to think about history in a more profound way.