Review: Michael A. Barnhart, Can You Beat Churchill? Teaching History Through Simulations (Cornell University Press, 2021). 198pp. $22.95 pb, $14.99 e-book.
This is a fantastic book for a range of educationalists and those seeking to understand the range of value that wargames and/or simulations can contribute to understanding events and the interactions of individuals.
This book is organised almost as a ‘starter-pack’ for those thinking about using simulations in their courses – whether they are working in further or higher education. The book tackles some of the most difficult issues up front (Chapter 1) – what is the point of conducting simulations? what do they contribute to student learning? and how much time do they take – both the time in the education plan (an afternoon, a week, a semester) and the amount of instructor time they will take to design, organise and run.
Possibly my favourite line in the whole book is “composing a simulation involves as much preparation as writing a scholarly article, or even a book.” (p.15) For me this sums up the clear-eyed analysis of the value of simulations in teaching – this is not a silver bullet to outstanding student evaluations, they are not the ‘easy route’ to assessment, instead they are likely to be highly demanding both for the students and the instructor. Barnhart is effusive in his praise for the immersive qualities of simulations (especially if you have correctly identified the roles, rules, and requirements) but he is also very pragmatic and practical about the challenges teachers will (and do face) in pulling them off. This balance in the book should also make it a must read for all directors of study / teaching and university deans who seek to pursue agendas that ‘diversify methods of assessment’.
The practical tips in the book and the questions for consideration that imbue all chapters will be extremely helpful to those who are new to using or playing simulations (I have already recommended the book to some of my colleagues in this position). These practical considerations need to be viewed through the limitations of your own institution – for example, trying to find the ideal room (p.80 onwards) or at least the least-worst room for a simulation will require readers to understand some of the dark arts of university administration and room bookings – easy for some, very hard for others.
There is an excellent and very well considered discussion throughout the book of some of the most significant challenges for historical simulations: morals, ethics, and engagement. Again, Barnhart does well to identify that there are a range of solutions to some of these questions and these solutions (for example p.54) will depend on your own education context and your students. I would also argue that they depend on the instructor and your personal skills as a games master, increasingly from the perspective of the UK I would also strongly encourage all instructors to have a good and clear conversation with a university leader that has extensive knowledge of ethical considerations for teaching.
The book also reflects on the importance of managing the dynamics of different types of students and how they engage. Whilst the book is clear that most students will fully embrace their role and the activity, he is clear that you need strategies to deal with “the student who would not speak” (p.100). These strategies can be built into the game design, but they will also depend on how much you know your students before assigning roles and also the internal group dynamics that emerge between students as the simulation progresses.
One area where I think the book could have added a chapter would have been on accessibility. That is how to make the materials accessible to a range of students who might have different needs or requirements for engagement – which in term might turn the quiet or shy student into the active dynamic student. I would argue this is even more importance in simulations given their dynamic and all-encompassing nature, the need to consider the speed of interaction, the importance or unimportance of instant recall, the ability to speak rather than write, or indeed write rather than speak in order to interact. Increasingly it is important to draw out these considerations as a part and parcel of the activity of teaching but call all too easily be overlooked. I did exactly that until Sally Davis’s Make me a Dyslexic simulation.
In the current COVID world, it might also have been helpful to have an endnote – or an acknowledgement of how simulations can be done differently in a hybrid or online teaching situation. But, perhaps this good fodder for the second edition?
Overall, this is a fantastic book that is a must read for those considering using simulations and is also helpful for those who already do use them and seek to improve their praxis. I would also argue it is a great book to recommend for those who are plagued by questions of the ilk: what is the point of simulations?
Catherine Jones, University of St. Andrews