MHarcourt's picture

I teach in a large, co-educational, urban high school in downtown Wellington, New Zealand. I am heavily involved in the history teaching community at local and national levels and recently co-edited a book on developing New Zealand students’ historical thinking. I am particularly interested in applying a geographic dimension to my history lessons. I am also very interested in indigenous ways of knowing the past and the implications of these for me as a descendent of Wellington’s first European settlers who arrived in 1840.

Jump starting historical thinking with Jenga

This is a fun and engaging  2-3 lesson task I have developed  to start the year and introduce students to the kind of thinking they will need to do to be successful in history. It is an especially effective way to gain valuable diagnostic data on the complexity of students’ historical thinking. It can also help students who are new to the subject gain an understanding of the discipline.

Step 1: Give students two minutes or so to respond to each of these questions or statements silently on a piece of paper:

  • Some versions of the past are better than others
  • Since everyone is entitled to their opinion, all versions of the past are equally valid
  • Knowing the past can help us predict the future
  • History is constructed
  • Is it possible for two accounts of the same historical event to be valid but at the same time completely different?
  • Is it possible to have any real understanding of what happened in the past without someone who witnessed to tell us?

Step 2: Move the desks to the sides of the room, leaving one table in the middle with the class sitting around it and a Jenga game set up in the middle.

Step 3: Each person in the class has a turn taking a block out and placing it on the tower. Students may get two turns each, depending on the steadiness of their hands.

Step 4: You will need to allow 25-30 minutes for this game, as the Jenga tower needs to fall over before you leave the class. To speed things up you can have time limits, or make students use one hand.

Step 5: As students are playing, write down some notes on the game. If you can, ask a few students to take some photos and some video footage of the game with their phones.

Step 6 (probably  the next class): Students write down their response to this question in about 50-100 words: “Why did the Jenga tower fall?” (If some students were away for the game, they will need to read a few peoples’ responses and base their interpretation on these testimonies).

Step 7: Students swap the pieces of paper with each other, reading as many as possible in about 10-15 minutes. As they are reading they should write down summaries of the responses in their notes, looking out for as many different interpretations as they can. Note the person’s name if they feel particularly strong about a classmates’ view. They could categorise the class' interpretations according to long term causes, triggers, or different ‘conditions’.

Step 8: Show students primary sources from the event, eg, video footage or photos that students may have taken, notes that the teacher took and have students write a 300-400 historical secondary account that answers the question “Why did the Jenga tower fall?” As they write, tell students to make reference to different types of evidence, and quote students’ interpretations they agree with/disagree with by using their names (historiography).

Step 9: Throw everyone’s accounts in the bin and read them a “state” account of the event you have written and tell them that this is the best one and the one they should agree with. Discuss how it makes them feel and talk about the idea of “official history”.

Step 10: Give students their responses from step one and discuss: Would they change their responses? Why? Which ones? Give them a chance to make any changes.

Step 11: Retrieve student writing from the bin and use it as a diagnostic tool to assess their thinking about historical causation.

Step 12: At various points throughout the year, get students to answer the same six questions from step one but with using course content to illustrate what they mean. Have students reflect on the changes in their historical thinking from their first lesson of the year.

I think there is potential to add in another step by giving them some historical lenses such as a feminist, Marxist or revisionist historical lens and seeing if some students could write an answer to the central historical question from one of these perspectives. The activity proves an invaluable introduction to many aspects of historical thinking, but especially historical causation.





What is a Benchmark?

<p>John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising &amp; Marketing History,<br />Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections</p>

A surveyor cut a "benchmark" into a stone or a wall when measuring the altitude and/or level of a tract of land. A bracket called a "bench" was secured in the cut to mount the surveying equipment, and all subsequent measurements were made in reference to the position and height of that mark.

The term "benchmark" was first used around 1842 to refer to a standard of quality by which achievement may be measured.

The foundation documents available through the Benchmarks site attempt to help teachers establish standards for assessing student learning of the modes of thought that constitute historical thinking.

John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History,
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections