What To Do (And Not Do) When Gamifying History Education


An early lesson that I learned as a young teacher was that if students thought learning was fun, they would pursue so much more of it. Though, as a history teacher, so much of the content that I needed to teach was reading intensive. I was faced with the choice of reading all of the material myself and summarize it for my students. Or I could have my students read the material, and summarize it themselves.

The obvious conundrum was that I did not have the bandwidth to read and summarize all of the content. And, I was teacher 11th-graders who on average read on a 4th-grade level. This lead me to research ways to gamify my history curriculum. Now a more mature educator, I did a recent search on gamification of a history class. I was happy to see so many well-thought out resources. In this post I address the most salient points for gamifying a history classroom while still focusing on learning.

An Introduction To Gamification In The Classroom

The term gamification in the classroom is unfortunately tied to the practice of framing education in a business format. As Tim Walker explains in this NEA article on Gamification In The Classroom, it can be too easy to award students points and rewards for participation. When this is done, the novelty wears off and no critical thinking takes place. What should happen is a well-designed game that gets students thinking about the content, and striving toward mastery of standards. In the history classroom, if issues are positioned in the right way, the content will seem inherently interesting. My experience as a history teacher found this to be true, and in this post I wrote about the resources that allowed me to be a successful history teacher while getting my students interested in what I taught.

Give Students Choice and Voice

One of the reasons why students like playing games in the classroom is because they get the opportunity to have more personal agency than what generally happens in a traditional classroom. In Matthew Lynch’s article in The Edvocate, he reminds us of the importance that voice and choice play in an educational game. If this is done correctly, students can critically think about the content they are learning, and use their own voices to work out alternative histories.

Virtual Field Trips

One of the most fascinating aspects of a humanities classroom is exploring other cultures. When I first learned about Google Cardboard and the Google Cultural Institute, I could barely contain my excitement for the new possibilities for a humanities classroom. Since that time, I’ve learned of more resources for taking students on virtual field trips around the world. This article on Common Sense Education looks at 35 tools to take students on a field trip, and most of them are for free. You can pair these resources with your favorite curricular guides, and you will have a lesson that will seem like a game to students.

Make History Class Relevant to Present-Day Life

I’ve noticed how so many adults that I speak with find history fascinating, and relevant to present-day life. However, most students reluctantly enter my classroom at the beginning of the year. I believe that this disjuncture has to do with what history class looks like in traditional education. When history can be connected to present-day life, students are a lot more motivated to participate. There are ways to gamify these connections, and a few of them are discussed in this New York Times article on “Making It Relevant: Helping Students Connect Their Studies to the World Today.” Some of my favorite ideas from this article are the “World History Standards Bingo” and the photo essays that make connections.

Games To Make History Interesting

The quick search presented above leads me to conclude that history is so interesting that no games are necessary. However, what needs to happen is material needs to be taken out of the textbook and brought alive. Teaching anything in social studies connects to everybody’s real life today, and that is one of the points made in the above-linked New York Times article. When teaching is done right, students think a history class if gamified, but a seasoned educator knows that critical thinking is really what is happening.

cultureBryn Hafemeister4, c