To develop a critical understanding of the past, we need to convincingly imagine ourselves there – and there can be a long way away.
After all, as historian Rebecca Schneider argues, history as a subject is uniquely “no-longer live” .
Those tasked with engaging young people to learn about the past therefore need to help them inhabit history, enter its landscapes and understand its people and thinking.
At St Peter’s College, Adelaide, technology is helping us achieve this.
Ancient Mesopotamia was built from scratch for a virtual tour conducted by Year 7 students of history using Minecraft Edu.
While Minecraft has long been a feature of classrooms, its open, unfiltered structures presented undue cybersafety risks.
Minecraft Edu solves these problems by allowing schools to host the software, therefore being able to construct supervised virtual worlds.
We are the first school in Australia to deploy Minecraft Edu to a whole year level in a fully-coordinated unit.
Collaborative planning between humanities teachers and ICT staff helped establish virtual landscapes in Minecraft Edu, matching the terrain of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Each landscape contained a resources zone and even an ICT helpdesk!
In this terra nullis, teams of students had to bring Mesopotamia to life. Armed with considerable prior research, which was documented in the online resources zones, student groups had to collaborate to construct a Mesopotamian city from scratch.
Considering that Ancient Mesopotamia was the first civilisation in history to build fullyfledged cities, with a complexity we still recognise in today’s metropolises, this was hardly easy.
Student engagement, and therefore effort, was intrinsic and intense throughout.
The hardest, and most important, learning for the students involved filtering and prioritising research in order to design the group’s preliminary city map – and then of course collaborating to project-manage the construction work.
The result saw each group complete a city of extraordinary accuracy and complexity. You can take a virtual abridged tour and judge for yourself.
When the students gave guided on-screen tours, the absorption and amazement of all who witnessed them was telling.
As art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote: “Anyone who can handle a needle convincingly can make us see a thread that is not there”.
This time, thanks to Minecraft Edu, we were able to thread Ancient Mesopotamia to our young learners’ imaginations.