Not so long ago, students were often told that “there are no what-ifs in history”. Contemporary history education has largely given up the idea of a singular and linear way of narrating the past. However, many history educators are still struggling to find ways to incorporate multiple perspectives and controversial narratives into history class, especially when the topic is an emotional one.
The digital learning project “History on Screen”, developed by semioticians of the University of Tartu as a part of the Õpiveski programme, implies that there are many different stories that can be told about the past and that playing around with them can lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of history.
Through the example of Estonian Leelo Tungal’s novel “The Little Comrade” and its film adaptation, we teach high school students to acquire different historical perspectives, analyze sources, and develop historical literacy. The platform includes a map of the story-world and three theoretical chapters on different topics: mediation of the past, the role of perspective, and cultural memory and memory conflicts.
We argue that our relationship with the past is a complex process, which is in line with the idea of ‘historical culture’ proposed by German history scholar Jörn Rüsen. Each person is not just a passive receiver of historical facts, but also plays a creative role both in reception and dissemination of different presentations of the past in varied media. Apart from reading history textbooks and listening to teachers’ lectures, people learn by listening to parents and grandparents, watching TV, and visiting museums.
In order to be prepared to deal with any kind of historical source, students need to acquire historical literacy. That does not mean ranking sources in the sense of their truthfulness, but understanding how they mediate the past. To provide a deeper feeling of history, we use various digital formats in our project: from archive materials and book covers to video lectures and games. As a result, students can not only learn facts about the Soviet culture, but also understand how the past is mediated through different sources.
Play has always been an important part of learning, although not always recognized by the school system. Games can provide more interactive and immersive experiences than plain texts, which helps them explain complex interrelations and concepts.
In previous decades, almost every field of education has been gamified — from the Duolingo language app to video games for surgeons and engineers. Additionally, gamification has become a huge trend in mass media: companies develop serious news games about wars and politics, as well as provide recreation for readers through games and tests. Digital formats on the verge of education and entertainment became the main source of inspiration for our platform. To explain concepts and to give space for practice, we designed 14 games, tests, and interactive tasks.
All tasks on the platform could be roughly subdivided into three groups: tasks with instant feedback, open tasks, and creative problem-solving tasks. A separate gamified element is an interactive map of the “The Little Comrade”, which presents important concepts in a spatial way and encourages students to explore the topic in a preferred order.
Tasks with instant feedback allow students to apply their skills in practice and learn something new in the process. None of them requires mere recollection of facts; rather, students are challenged to deduce the answer using their intuition and theoretical tools.
- Tests on our platform offer the possibility to find connections between distant phenomena. We pair together shockingly similar ideas and encourage students to think about how they relate to each other. Our tests focus on the similarities and differences between the cult of personality and pop culture, pioneers and Kodutütred — the modern girl scouts organization in Estonia.
- Timeline is a hundred-year-old educational technology invented by Maria Montessori. Timeline allows for putting events in a certain order and juxtaposing different levels — from global history to private life. On our platform, students are asked to analyze the chronology of Soviet time. This may require creative thinking and analysis — people of various cultural backgrounds can date some events (for instance, the Soviet era itself) differently.
- Multimedia tasks teach students to correlate different media, analyze media specificity, and find good analogues. For one of our tasks, we encrypted some Soviet concepts (such as stakhanovite or kolkhoz) into pictograms and offered students to match the right pairs.
Open tasks do not provide an instant feedback option but imply that the answer is discussed with teachers or peers. Students can download their works from the platform, print them out, or share them online. For instance, we ask students to rewrite a fragment of the story from the perspective of different characters. In another task, students need to map a social universe of the character, which requires an understanding of who is the Own and the Other.
Problem-solving and creative tasks are the most complicated both in terms of technological solutions and students’ work. Creative tasks on our platform are centered around group work and visualization. In one task, students are offered to make a collage on a certain historical topic — for instance, deportation. To do so, students need to deconstruct their historical memory and think about what it is made of: grandparents’ stories, textbooks, films, articles, etc. In another task, we ask students to visualize a scene from the script by searching for objects from digital archives. Students can find or make pictures, upload them to the platform, and integrate them into a whole.
An interactive and playful approach to teaching history has already been tested in our workshops in 2017. Even though some would oppose the idea of playing with topics such as repressions or deportation, we believe that games can also be very serious. After all, they can provide a deeper feeling for the problem and may become a good start for discussing painful topics.
Alexandra Milyakina and Merit Rickberg are PhD students in semiotics at the University of Tartu.