Rick Brennan and Jason Darnell know exactly what kind of innovation is possible within a traditional public school system. These social studies teachers spent six years, in their spare periods and off hours, totally remaking how learning happens in their classrooms at Lanier Middle School in Houston. Their reward? Higher test scores and reduced rates of absenteeism among students, for starters. More importantly, they created a way for students to experience history—the dance of human circumstance, the tough decision-making, the relentless consequence of actions taken—in addition to the static facts and figures that make up our understanding of how civilization happened. What they created was a game called Historia.
Historia is a paper-based civilization simulation game that incorporates a year-long world cultures curriculum aligned to the Texas state standards. The game is played in the classroom using worksheets, research materials—reference books and a few desktop computers—and an interactive presentation, delivered by Brennan and Darnell. During the game, students cluster together in teams to form civilizations, which they must govern skillfully as they progress through world history, meeting and measuring themselves against the decisions of all the peoples that existed between 2000 BCE and 2000 CE.
Here’s how sixth grader Joshua describes Historia’s approach to learning: "A regular class is a lecture. In a regular class, you’re learning what the teacher knows. But in Historia, you’re learning what the teacher knows, and you’re learning on your own. There’s no place to get distracted." Or, in Darnell’s words: "The kids will grab a book without you asking them. They’ll ask the questions you want them to ask without prompting. Also, they’ll talk about it constantly. We actually had to rig the game so that different classes experienced different things. Otherwise, they would talk about it in the halls and at lunch, and classes later in the day would be doing much better than classes in the morning." That’s because Historia creates a link between knowledge and experience in a way that matters to students. Students need to know about the Trojan War, because knowing about the Trojan War makes them better 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, they come to value the knowledge that leads to skillful decision-making and, coincidentally, academic achievement.
Since Brennan and Darnell introduced the game in their classrooms several years ago, Historia has taken on a life of its own. It has spread to other classrooms within Lanier Middle School and to other schools in Houston. Students have even been known to take the game home to play with parents and neighbors. And that, for Darnell, is where the real magic happens, since "the only way you know that you really know something, is if you can teach it."
Brian Waniewski is the Managing Director at Institute of Play, a not-for-profit design studio that pioneers new models of learning and engagement. He is also a partner at the future forecasting firm Popular Operations.