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"Talking Historically": Using Performance to Develop Young Students' Historical Thinking

Posted by Katherine Ireland
25 January 2013 - 10:14am

My history work with young students has been almost exclusively focused on oral rather than written language. As the K-2 students I have worked with are still learning to read, reading and writing were not going to be effective methods of historical inquiry. I had to search for methods of doing history that engaged them in what Barton and Levstik (2011) call “talking historically” (p. 24). I relied heavily on their 2011 book Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (4th ed.) because I had found so little research on doing history with young students before they’ve learned to read. They point out that with a historical text, only so much information can be gleaned, whereas conversation offers greater depth for practicing the skills needed in historical investigation:

By talking historically, students do have an opportunity to ask for further explanation, hear tone of voice, or read body language. They can negotiate meaning, try out ideas, keep or discard them — jointly making sense of history. This process is at least as challenging and important to historical thinking as learning to read either written texts or visual images (Barton & Levstik, 2011, p. 24).

Role-playing stood out to me as an effective method for creating discussion and learning among orally literate students, so this aspect of performance was one we used a lot in the classroom. The role-playing activities were opportunities for students to attempt to put themselves in another’s shoes, providing support for historical perspective–taking. We played this game four times, three with the children taking on different roles each time, once spontaneously at the children’s request. Barton and Levstik call these “response activities,” that offer students the chance to interact with the material they’ve been learning (p. 153). They’re able to see and discuss situations that they might never consider or encounter in their everyday lives. Barton and Levstik advocate for the use of role-play in doing history for this very reason: “Using role-play and simulations as opportunities to play out different interpretations or constructions of events can support recognition of historical perspectives” (p. 150). They suggest that unscripted role-play is best, so that the story is not already set and students have opportunities to explore multiple possibilities, also noting that historical inquiry is required for this kind of role-play to be successful (p. 150).

I followed Kieran Egan’s approach in his 1986 book Teaching as Storytelling, where he suggests a guided role-play structured like a game, involving the entire class. This is the model I used in planning the role-plays for this unit, heeding Barton and Levstik’s advice that the questions and answers be unscripted. In Egan’s model the class is divided into three groups. One group, Group C, is in the middle asking questions, while the other two groups, A and B, are on either side, representing two different groups or concepts, to answer the questions. The middle group gathers information from both sides, and the activity concludes with a whole-class discussion. This activity provided an opportunity for the whole class to participate, and for them to be more actively involved in exploring alternate perspectives through both questioning and playing a role.

I used the role-playing game to introduce drama and play to the unit. This was an effective way not only for students to explore the tension between various historical perspectives, but also for them to question and interact with history. As Wineburg (2001) states: “Students come to develop a sensitivity to multiple stories because they have wrestled with them, not as arbiter of others’ accounts but as authors of their own” (p.131).  The use of drama and role-play to examine multiple historical perspectives and analyzing cause and consequence was also an effective tool that effectively integrated historical thinking concepts within a imaginative education framework. The role-play game offered a different way for students to talk historically, not asking questions of each other but of the historical figures they were learning about. The role-plays were also structured in the form of a game, which the students were very enthusiastic about. As we introduced more groups to the story, the role-play became more challenging. Students would confuse different groups, particularly the Mennonites and the First Nations peoples, and would have to discuss their ideas with their classmates to understand where they fit in the story. Students who had a stronger grasp of the story modeled for others the kinds of questions to ask, as well as how to become a character for the game.

While this approach might be viewed as an overly simplistic and somewhat superficial form of inquiry for older students, it was a great introduction to the practice of historical inquiry for very young students who could not draw on written texts for support. It was engaging, and also good practice, as Barton and Levstik point out, in thinking historically.

How do you incorporate drama and role-playing into your history lessons?


Photo: Trying out the printing press at the HerstoriesCafe event at Mackenzie House, January 30th, Toronto. Editor's photo.


Barton, K., & Levstik, L. (2011). Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Egan, K. (1986). Teaching as Storytelling: An alternative approach to teaching and curriculum in the elementary school. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wineburg, S. (2001). Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University.