One of many powerful scenes in the film Good Will Hunting features Robin Williams’ character, Sean, confronting Matt Damon’s character, Will, about his life and experiences. Sean asks Will (a victim of terrible violence who has been shuffled between foster homes): “You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?”
As social studies educators, we endeavor to help our students deeply connect with historical figures and events. And, we know that our discipline provides powerful moments for the young people in our classes to not only contextualize the experiences of those who lived in the past but to also consider how historical conditions shaped the perspectives and decision-making of people who lived long ago.
I recently observed a pre-service teacher lead her students through a study of antebellum slavery. She presented them with the image of Gordon, the escaped slave, who, upon examination in a Union hospital, was discovered to have excessive scar tissue amassed due to the whippings he endured while enslaved. His photograph was widely circulated by abolitionists as documented proof of the horrors of slavery. The teacher showed the photograph of Gordon as part of the lesson opening but did not return to the image nor provide any further context about its creation, a connection to slave narratives, or
to scholarship about the disciplining of slaves. During our post-observation debrief, she acknowledged that, without including these critical elements, the inclusion of the image lived as more of a shock value tactic than as a valuable resource to foster thoughtful discussion and historical empathy.
How then can educators meaningfully cultivate historical empathy in their Social Studies classroom without falling into a “shock value” moment? How can technology support this vital work? A significant amount of recent research has been conducted on the precise definition of historical empathy as well as how instructional methods can promote empathetic thinking.
In their article, “An Updated Theoretical and Practical Model for Promoting Historical Empathy,” Dr. Jason Endocott and Dr. Sarah Brooks state that, “historical empathy is the process of students’ cognitive and affective engagement with historical figures to better understand and contextualize their lived experiences, decisions, or actions.” Endocott and Brooks argue there are three “interrelated and interdependent endeavors” that must take place during the inquiry process to be truly defined as historical empathy:
- HISTORICAL CONTEXTUALIZATION
- PERSPECTIVE TAKING
- AFFECTIVE CONNECTION
In other words, students must deeply understand the historical period under study as well as how the perspectives of people living during the time were shaped and presented. Students must also be able to consider the life experiences of
historic figures and form affective connections to them as a result.
Technology can provide students a window into the lives and experiences of historical figures as well as an understanding of events and place. Effective use of immersive technology coupled with primary source text, images, audio and video, when accessible, can help students develop deeper connections with historical events. These digital simulations can create a
learning environment where students critically analyze stories of the past. Teachers have access to and engage current technologies that amplify the historical experience for their students. Google Earth and Google Expeditions provide young people the unique opportunity to take a virtual reality tour to various sites around the world. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History allows students to explore various historical eras and closely examine the details of specific places.
Pearson recently introduced a powerful, immersive learning experience for U.S. history students. Project Imagine combines compelling primary sources, immersive learning technology, and innovative, interactive modules. Built around a Launch It! Explore It! Apply It! model, students are first presented with an engaging video, background summary, and guiding questions. As they journey through the immersive modules spanning various eras in United States history including: The 1920s, The Great Depression and New Deal, World War II, and The Civil Rights Movement, students encounter and explore primary sources, issues, and scenarios. They deepen their understanding through writing activities, discussions, and presentations, and they interact with detailed infographics and a wide variety of primary sources to analyze.
The most impactful and historical empathy aligned components of Project Imagine, however, are those that allow students to take on the role of a person in history. Students learn the stories of various individuals and examine their choices. They explore scenes from the characters’ lives and engage with images and excerpts.
The various rooms and scene locations that shape the characters’ lives include ambient sound and hotspots that students can select and navigate. Project Imagine also includes 360-Degree Exploration Immersives where students survey historic sites, environments, and structures. The World War II 360-Degree Exploration Immersive takes students to Manzanar, the incarceration camp that housed over 10,000 Japanese Americans during the war. As students engage with the different areas of the Manzanar immersive, they encounter information that details not only the harsh conditions of the Owens Valley but also of the resilience, courage, patriotism, and humanity of the people who were housed there as a result of
Executive Order 9066. Decision Tree and Opinion Poll immersives are also part of the Project Imagine experience.
Utilizing primary and secondary source material, students analyze the decisions made by people in the past and make their own choices based on the evidence they have examined. Project Imagine provides students with meaningful and authentic experiences deeply connecting with people of the past: their experiences, their dwellings, and their decision-making pro-
cesses. These experiences not only create excitement and engagement around historical study but also give budding historians the opportunity to practice skills of contextualization, analysis, and comparison. When young people emotionally
connect to content and engage critical thinking, they are developing historical empathy…and that is when the most powerful learning moments take place.
About the Author: Meg Honey is a Humanities Curriculum Specialist with Pearson. She taught middle school and high school social studies for sixteen years and currently serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Kalmanovitz School of Education at Saint Mary’s College of California. Meg is a regular moderator of the Newmakers Speaker Series and featured in conversation with David McCullough, Martin Luther King III, and Michael Beschloss. She has presented about the FAIR Education Act to groups across California and moderated a statewide Twitter chat about its implementation as part of the California Teachers Summit. Meg earned a Master’s Degree in United States history at San Jose State University, is a certified educational trainer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and was Mount Diablo Unified School District’s Teacher of the Year in 2017.