My first year of teaching, I created a group project based on the Industrial Revolution for high school students. The project had students creating a product that would make life easier and then "pitching" the idea to "investors". A parent of one of my students was extremely concerned about the project. "What does this have to do with the Industrial Revolution?".
Although I spent considerable time explaining that the purpose of learning historical events was to apply the facts and connections one discovers and incorporate them into creating new ideas she never was convinced. History education for her was not about placing students in simulations of innovation and entrepreneurship to use future success in life; if it wasn't the facts of the Bessemer Process, then it wasn't history education. I didn't let her view hinder my approach over the past 22 years.
Next week in the biology and history classes will combine in the 7th grade at our school. The purpose for this is our Biome Zoo project where groups of students are given a region of the world and must create a pitch that will encourage a foundation to build their zoo. The zoo combines elements of a biome and a culture from history (for example the steppes of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire). A Mongolian zoo would have both animal exhibits and plant life from Mongolia and buildings and foods typically found there. We had kids building props, bringing in costumes, and rehearsing their presentations. And starting Monday I have the pleasure of watching their "solutions" that mix together actual facts of biology and history into the creation of their presentation.
The project does not have a detailed punch list of requirements for students to accomplish. By keeping it as open ended as possible, it allows students the freedom to present some fascinating zoos for the biology teacher and myself to watch. As I always tell my students when I don't give them specific answers to their questions about any project:
"I don't want to see how well you create something from my imagination,
I want to see what you create from YOUR imagination."
Assigning projects that gives wide parameters
allows my students to explore and create solutions I never imagined.
How does allowing students this freedom help them become a success?
Was the parent who criticized this use of time right, that it is really not history education?
I have always believed that I teach history in order to get students to think and understand their world. I recognize that most are not going to do anything with historical facts in their careers, but every student will need to be critical thinkers (its the same reason why you should take higher level math courses like Trig and Calculus even though 95% of people will never use what they learn).
In those video projects I assigned at CHS, I had a group that attempted to make their videos into blockbusters. Armed with basic editing devices (two VCR's) and cheap and easy to make special effects, their videos were the talk of the school. For me I watched their films with an appreciation of their genius. Fifteen years later, I know one of those boys went on to become a lead designer for a Facebook game and researches and develops new products. He has a website where he documents how to make a smart watch from a 3-D printer. My hope is that he learned through his trial and error in the video projects, perseverance and that the projects also helped to mature his innate imagination.
Ingenuity and creativity are skills that we all use in life. Crafting your subject matter in such a way that encourages your students to think beyond the facts you are presenting to allow them to create new worlds filled with new ideas. By doing so, you are preparing your students for whatever the future may bring them.