Teaching the Articles of Confederation with gamification

Editor’s Note: In this guest post, republished with permission, teacher Travis Phelps discusses how he used gamification to teach a lesson plan on the Articles of Confederation, Battle of Saratoga, and other topics related to the Revolutionary War.

When I was in middle school, I often felt perplexed at why leaders or politicians behaved the way they did. Why couldn’t they just get over their differences and come together? Why wouldn’t they take a risk, especially when it paid off in the end?

I think that my ignorance stemmed from the fact that scenarios are not real to middle school students. They often don’t feel the risks involved; the risks are far too abstract to our students. As a teacher, I have sometimes tried role-playing situations to make them real. Despite these good intentions, I have often found that adolescents rarely take these seriously. There is no need for them to care, so why should they? When the going gets tough, they check out, and the struggle that is necessary for learning disappears.

The role-playing game Classcraft changes this dynamic. Students can gain Experience Points (XP), which allow them to eventually level up, and they can lose Health Points (HP), which can ultimately lead to real consequences for students (like eating on the floor during lunch or cleaning out my closet and bookshelf). I typically use XP and HP as incentives and consequences, but I have recently discovered the tremendous value in using them for role-playing scenarios.

Recently, we were learning about the Revolutionary War. I wanted students to understand the significance of the Battle of Saratoga—that by winning the battle, the Americans showed France that the Colonists just might win the war, which encouraged France to support the Americans. To create a similar situation, I created a Google doc for student groups giving them the choice between two companies. One company had a 25 percent chance of making it big while the other had a 50 percent chance of making it big. Groups had to choose which one to invest in.

If the company made it, the groups would earn XP, and if the company didn’t, they would lose HP. The HP loss was much greater for the 25 percent company, and the XP was comparable for both. Unsurprisingly, most groups went with the 50 percent company. I then went to a random generation website to see which companies made it and which did not. Most groups that went with the 50 percent won while everyone who went with the 25 percent group lost.

I think that my ignorance stemmed from the fact that scenarios are not real to middle school students.

I then had my class research the Battle of Saratoga, after which I asked them to connect Saratoga with our class activity. The students immediately recognized that Saratoga increased the odds for American success and provided the incentive for a French alliance. This idea would not have hit home as strongly without Classcraft. Students would not have the incentive to care about the investment; winning or losing wouldn’t have any effect on them, so why would they take it seriously?

Today, the class lesson focused on the failure of the Articles of Confederation to pass any bills. I made each group a state and assigned it unique characteristics. Some states did not want a national army while others did. Some wanted the government to take over the debts while others were strongly opposed. If a bill passed that went with a state’s interests, that group would gain XP. If a bill passed that went against a state’s interests, that group would lose HP. I also required a super-majority to pass bills, just like the government under the Articles of Confederation.

Needless to say, few bills were passed because groups did not want to vote against their own interests (one group that did bite the bullet saw its members lose all HP, thereby earning real consequences). Students didn’t want to lose actual HP, and so they didn’t vote against their own interests. This hit the point home that the Articles of Confederation didn’t work. The end result was ineffective government, which students got to experience firsthand.

Thanks to Classcraft, learning simulation in social studies is now possible, and students will comprehend the motivations of historical figures. Could I ask for anything more?

Share your ideas: How have you made history more relevant to your students?

Travis Phelps is the assistant principal and 8th grade teacher at St. Justin School in Santa Clara, California. He has a BA from the University of San Francisco, an MA from Providence College, and is currently taking courses toward earning his Administrative Credential through the Santa Clara County Office of Education. Travis is the husband of a beautiful woman and the father of two very charismatic children.

Photo credit: Sean Donohue Photo / Shutterstock.com


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