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Simulation or Role Play?

How does a simulation differ from a role-play?

My pragmatic distinction is that a role-play involves students in decision-making while placed in historical situations simulations lack that decision-taking element. Simulations tend to be directed entirely by the teacher acting as narrator with students acting out parts and answering questions but not being faced by a series of options and making choices. Take the two 1066 activities on the site – Ian Luff’s Hastings simulation describes the battle with students taking the parts of the soldiers whereas the What happened in 1066? role-play asks students in role as Harold, William etc to take a series of decisions at key moments. That said, this isn’t a PhD thesis on types of learning activity. It’s simply a pragmatic distinction to help identify the types of activity you can use.

Example Activities

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Detail and Complexity

The level of detail and complexity of simulations obviously differs hugely. Equipping a Roman soldier uses one student but lots of props whereas Why did the Armada fail? can involve a whole class in activity.

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The Benefits of Simulation

The benefits of simulation are the same as those of role-play so if you’ve read that section, stop reading here! But, if not, here’s a summary:

- they are an effective introduction to people, names, places and a sequence of events

- they develop students’ understanding of the motives and attitudes of people in the past

- they can bring out clearly why sources might have gaps or be subjective and why interpretations differ

- they help students develop an understanding of the complexity of past situations, a much greater complexity because they are, for a lesson, taking part in the historical event.

- they stimulate effective reading, especially at A level and above

- they help students to care about the people in the past because they identify with parts they and their friends have played.

- they require a lot more concentration than standard lessons – any moment you might be put on the spot to comment or respond to a question!

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All Levels and Ages

And they work at all levels, up to and including undergraduate level and can be adapted to accommodate a wide variety of demands and levels of detail. One final practical point – note-taking, particularly at A level. If you have sufficient students pairing them up, one participant and one as note-taker on behalf of the pair is a useful way of ensuring everyone has a set of notes to take away. If necessary, provide note-takers with structured guidelines for the notes.

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Example Activities

What did the Ancient Egyptians think caused disease?

Act out Egyptian ideas by turning your students into human anatomy

Four Humours made Simple

The simplest possible demonstration of the theory

Equipping a Roman Soldier

Load a legionary with his equipment and change pupils' thinking about the lives of Roman soldiers

Je Suis le Roi. What happened after 1066?

Rebellions, castle-building, changes in land ownership, Danish invasions, the Harrying of the North and William getting angry in French – c’est magnifique

The Battle of Hastings: Decisions on the Spur of the Moment? (Groan)

Recreate the battle and help your students understand why the Normans won

Why was the Harvest So Important?

A brief simulation demonstrating the impact of poor harvests on villagers. Also worth using as background to the Industrial Revolution.

The Wars of the Roses Part 1: Rivalries and Alliances 1450 – 1455

An introduction to the events leading up to the first battle of St. Alban

How certain are we that Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower?

A two stage activity for KS3, firstly telling the story of 1483, then exploring the evidence for the fate of the Princes.

Henry VII's Use of Bonds

You play the part of Henry VII and your students are the nobles - how will they feel about bonds?

Why did the Armada fail?

Tell the story of the Armada by turning your pupils into ships and develop their understanding of causation and interpretations

Pare, Vesalius and Henri II

Report the big news of 1559; simulate the work of Pare and Vesalius as they struggle to save Henri II; identify key aspects of Renaissance Medicine

Using locality to introduce the Civil War – The Civil War in Leeds

Your students become the people of Leeds in 1642. Will they survive the Civil War? An activity showing how to use your locality to inspire interest in the Civil War.

Arteries, Veins and Capillaries – what Harvey couldn’t see!

Use a tin of tomatoes to help students understand Harvey's discovery

Turnpikes: Mobilising the Transport Revolution

Recreate the journey times before and after turnpikes and revolutionise understanding

Smugglers Ahoy: Tea for Sale

Why was 18th century smuggling so profitable, and so accepted?

Simulating an Early Nineteenth-Century Surgical Operation

Find out how Andy Harmsworth provides his students with an engaging and memorable introduction to a series of lessons on the development of surgery (Bring your own saw!)

Lister's Antiseptic spray

Explore the difficulties Lister must have had in using the carbolic spray and perhaps discover why he faced so much opposition. Activity by Ian Luff.

Salvarsan – Guiding the Psychopathic Germ Killer

This activity explains simply, but powerfully, why Salvarsan was effective, but risky. Activity by Ian Luff

How did Europe come to the brink of war in 1914?

Turn your classroom into a map of Europe to help students deepen their understanding of the outbreak of World War One. Activity created by Megan Underwood

Understanding Trench Warfare

Created by Megan Underwood, this activity shows Y9 pupils why trenches were such effective defensive structures

Failure of the Schlieffen Plan

Walk your students through the map of Europe and make your decisions - then discover the grim reality

The ‘stab in the back’ 1918

Arm wrestle your way to understanding the German army’s reaction to defeat

Hyperinflation Crisis in Germany

Can your students buy a bar of chocolate before their money runs out?

Reichstag 1932-1933: How did Hitler finally gain power?

Ian Luff explains how to introduce students to Hitler’s rise to power and then build in complexity.

Breakthrough in the West, 1940

How did Hitler's forces reach the Channel? What was special about their tactics and what did the Allied defences get wrong?

Why did the RAF win the Battle of Britain?

Simulate the rival qualities of Spitfires and Messerschmitts and give your students more fire power in their explanations

World War Two: Why was accurate bombing so difficult?

Turn your class into bomb aimers to discover how difficult their task was - and why civilians were so at risk in bombing raids.

How safe were air raid shelters for the poor in Britain's cities?

Ian Luff demonstrates the weaknesses of air–raid shelters and provides a documentary activity exploring the destruction of one shelter in London.

Where are the Viet Cong?

Recreate the tensions of the search for Viet Cong to help students understand why the US army couldn’t win

The Atom Bomb – a Classroom Demonstration!

How powerful was an atomic bomb compared with other weapons? All you need is an egg - and some egg-proofing!

Cuban Missile Crisis

A gloriously simple way to make your students’ understanding far more sophisticated

Gerrymandering in Northern Ireland

Your chance to fiddle the votes and improve your students’ understanding

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Simulation or role play?

Detail and complexity

The benefits

All ages and levels


Example Activities


Other Activity Areas

Using Activities

Types of Activities

Hot Seating

Washing Lines

Timelines & Living Graphs

Role Plays


Decision Making

Physical Maps & Family Trees

Archaeology & Mysteries

Creating Communities

Market Place

Miscellaneous Models

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