In Europe documentaries: developing new skills, learning with enthusiasm – A conversation with teachers & students

Giulia Verdini Articles ,

In 2019, EuroClio joined forces with Dutch public broadcaster VPRO for the development of In Europe Schools, an online exchange project meant for European schools, teachers and youngsters to meet and cooperate. By 2021, more than 110 schools from 30 different countries have registered, and many decided to start a new round of the project.

In Europe Schoolsencourages a transnational approach of teaching Modern European History: European schools partner up to cooperate in the research, filming, documentary-making and finally exchanging not only their respective documentary, but also their ideas, experiences and opinions on rather controversial themes, such as difficult history, migration, climate change and gender equality. The project aims to foster collaboration between European teachers and youngsters and ultimately strengthens students’ capability of doing research and their media literacy skills, but it also enables them to acknowledge history as history in the making.

At the end of the school year 2020-2021, EuroClio sat down with some of the schools that joined the project to know more about their experiences, discuss the strengths of the project, but also difficulties and suggestions for improvement. Several teachers - but also students! - were interviewed, among which Deirdre from the Kandinsky College, Kristina from Elgoibar Ikastola, Matej from OŠ Belokranjskega odreda Semič, and Amaia from Santo Tomas Lizeoa. In addition to that, teachers from different schools had the opportunity to meet each other, exchange experiences and practices, and share thoughts and feedback with EuroClio during the peer learning event, held on 17 June 2021.

Meet the teachers: Amaia, Matej, Kristina and Deidre

Why did you decide to participate in this project? 

Amaia: We wanted our students to connect with students from other European countries, give them the opportunity to discuss their work and exchange experiences with students in other countries.

Matej: I wanted to give my students the opportunity to participate in an international project. The topic of migrations is close to my students, as we live at the Schengen border and illegal migrations are common. I also wanted my students to communicate with students from other countries.

Kristina: Our school is committed to international projects. In addition, the goal of the project is in line with our curriculum and competency model.

Deirdre: It is a great opportunity for students to work on beneficial topics with students from other countries.

 

How has the response of the students changed throughout the project?

Amaia: In the beginning, our students were not so confident with their knowledge of the topic and their command of foreign languages, but participating in the project has helped them to gain confidence.

Matej: My students started this project very open-mindedly, despite the fact that we live in a conservative region, where immigrants are not appreciated, or rather local people feel a certain amount of fear towards immigrants. Different perspectives, given in the project, even enlarged student’s empathy towards immigrants.

Kristina: Although the task at first seemed abstract and difficult for them, they gradually adapted to the task and came out with a very tidy job.

Deirdre: They have become more involved in the history lessons.

 

What was the biggest challenge?

Amaia: Finding interviewees was quite difficult. Language has been an added difficulty for some of our students, but not all. Finding the right rhythm for both schools was difficult, since we often had holidays and exams at different moments and therefore, we had difficulties to agree on deadlines and online meetings. We had to make some changes in our organization to be able to keep the contact. 

Matej: Due to Covid-19 our country experienced one of the longest lockdowns in Europe. For 6 months we had online school. Making documentaries was quite a big challenge. All communication was made via online meetings.

Kristina: The hardest part has been finding close and real testimonials. It’s not easy to put people in front of the camera.

Deirdre: Time, planning and research skills of students. While the lesson plans are very clear, we realised that the research part is quite open, so students either step up to the challenge or lose it a bit.

 

Were there any clashes in the classroom because of different opinions/perspectives?

Amaia: Not really, our students were mostly of the same opinion, and when they discussed with our partner school students, we discovered that they had similar views on the topic.

Matej: No, not really. However, we were not able to discuss the topic as thoroughly as we wanted. 

Kristina: Even though the affair was tough and difficult to deal with, the students kept their distance.

Deirdre: Not really. We do encourage an open atmosphere in class so it was ok to debate some topics.

 

How did Covid-19 affect the outcome?

Amaia: Last year´s lockdown made it very difficult for us to organise and coordinate the groups. Finding interviewees and making the interview was more difficult due to Covid-19 restrictions. But in the end, we managed. 

Matej: We had some problems finding time for all the activities in the project. That is also the reason why we needed a lot of time for our documentaries. 

Kristina: Of course, the pandemic has not made it easier to interact with people. And in our case, we wanted to deal with similar experiences.

Deirdre: Group work proved to be tricky as well as keeping distance while creating documentaries and carrying out interviews.

 

Did you create a meaningful relationship with your partner school?

Amaia: I think we did. We ended the project with a final online meeting of the different groups, and this event was highly valued by our students. They were very happy to have the opportunity to get to know students from other countries and talk to them about their experiences.

Matej: Sadly, no. We even changed our partner school. We sent our documentaries to the school and I tried to organise an online meeting. I was not successful with that. We also did not get any feedback on our work or received documentaries from other schools. I am very disappointed because of that. 

Kristina: In our case, we couldn’t fit a better colleague. The teacher is very knowledgeable, hardworking and ideal for directing this type of work and project.

Deirdre: Yes, our Spanish partners were great. With our Turkish partners, it was a little more difficult due to expectations and time differences. 

 

Do you have any suggestions on how this project could be implemented?

Amaia: The project as it is designed right now does not require much contact between partner schools until the end. We would suggest starting collaborating and getting to know each other from the beginning: instead of each school making their own videos and then showing them to their partner school, it could be more productive to mix the groups from the start, making them international from the beginning, so that the relationship between students becomes more collaborative from the first stages of the project. It would make the organization more complex, but it would also be a more enriching experience.

Matej: I would like to thank Eugenie from Euroclio, for all the help and support. It was very hard sometimes to continue with this project, but her emails of support helped us to finish our work. I think being in contact with project leaders is very important, even when it is only about moral support. 

Kristina: Everything was fine, maybe next year we can share part of the research or we can mix our students up.

Deirdre: Although I know it would be more difficult to arrange, I think it would be more beneficial if the students could actually work with their International partners to create one documentary.

What do students say?

All students agreed that such initiatives offer a new approach to history as a subject, and a different way of learning which enabled them not only to get an insight into specific moments of history, different perspectives and cultures, but also to encounter direct witnesses. 

Although researching is often the most difficult part, students are trained to find reliable information and develop their media literacy skills: overall, they genuinely enjoyed discovering facts that most likely they would have not encountered in a text, and coming across interesting anecdotes that they did not know of. It inevitably pushed them to further investigate their findings, test their knowledge and develop their research skills.

Everybody enjoyed creating a documentary from scratch, starting from researching the topic and then filming. It proved to be an effective way to learn about the past and about the way our past is so deeply interconnected with our present, which positively contributes to shaping a more informed society. It obviously helped them develop their digital skills: they learnt how to record and design the video. Video making was their favourite part: from doing the interviews to filming, video editing and seeing the documentary coming together. They were all excited whilst seeing their ideas taking shape, and eventually satisfied and proud of seeing what they were able to create.

Also watching documentaries from the partner school proved to be fascinating, as they found that they could learn a lot more about different histories of different countries compared to solely reading the history book envisaged in their curriculum.

Students’ views regarding the theme did not necessarily change, but they did get to learn a lot more: researching made them understand the topic better, and encountering multiple, at times contrasting perspectives was thought-provoking. Others affirmed that prior to the project, they did not have much knowledge about their topic, so ‘In Europe’ helped them to form an opinion. For privacy reasons, we cannot share their names, but we are proud to share some of the positive comments we received:

These kinds of initiatives raise awareness, especially among young people, about problems in the world. We were also able to express our opinions. 

We have learnt new things, met people, and practised English, but at the same time you have to work hard and the topic can be sensitive. 

We developed both academic and creative skills. 

It was such a fun way to learn about a topic and it’s very nice to learn differently than just sitting in the classroom. 

You learn a lot more about different histories of different countries than you learn in the book. 

It was an interesting and fun approach to help students know more about world history. 

I got to know the perspectives of both sides of the difficult history and formed an opinion. 

Where are we going from here?

Teachers found the project to be well organized and the different steps clear, and they also appreciated the assistance provided by EuroClio. They were particularly happy about the fact that they could decide which topic to focus on, for example, in order to select a relevant topic for the history of their country or to still be able to follow their history curriculum. 

The main difficulties revolved around the communication and the cooperation between the schools, however, coordinating with the partner school is truly the key to the success of the project: students can benefit a lot from online meetings and they particularly appreciate having the chance to engage with other European students - in some schools, this relationship continued after the project thanks to social media! For this reason, the implementation of a platform for communication could be of great use in order to enable schools to work together and build a stronger network and relationships.

Few schools have mentioned the importance of having clearer guidance on what recording/editing programmes shall be used for the making of the documentary, and others would appreciate having more resources categorized per topic.

We are genuinely grateful for the positive feedback we received, and we are also working on improvements. EuroClio will implement new sessions to explain the project and the toolkits, networking sessions for teachers and try to create an online learning community for students as well.

Both teachers and students really enjoyed taking part in this project because it’s a different kind of activity for teachers, but also a different way of learning for students, that keeps them more motivated and engaged. Some schools are planning to do this project as an interdisciplinary project between different subjects. Most schools will join again next year, because students want to do it again!

Written by Giulia Verdini

Are you struggling with keeping students motivated and engaged in the classroom? Let them investigate, film and tell their own current (hi)story! Climate Change, Gender Equality, Migration, as well as Difficult History, are the histories and challenges of all of us today. Sign up here for next year! 

Watch the latest documentaries!

You can find all the videos made by students on our YouTube Channel.

Source Image: Turkish Migration | Titus Brandsma College

EuroClio’s Position on the Digital Education Action Plan 2020 of the European Commission

Lorraine Besnier Association

Nique Sanders (Webtic) is leading a user testing session with history educators from EuroClio (London, April 2014)

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the related challenges for the sector of Education in general, the European Commission proposed a revision of the Digital Education Action Plan of 2018.  This revision was based on a public consultation to gather the views of citizens, institutions and organisations on their experiences and expectations during the COVID-19 crisis (both to date and during the recovery period), as well as their visions for the future of digital education in Europe. 

This new action plan is meant to support Member States, education and training institutions and citizens in their efforts to adapt to the digital transition and help ensure a fair and inclusive recovery for all.

EuroClio answered the call for expertise and contributed to the online consultation. In addition to filling the questionnaire, EuroClio also wrote a position paper to further its recommendations to the European Commission. In particular, EuroClio supported some of the existing priorities such as; making better use of digital technology for teaching and learning; developing relevant digital competences and skills for the digital transformation and improving education through better data analysis and foresight. 

However, EuroClio raised the issue that those ways forward will not be sufficient to achieve the goals that the European Commission set for the new action plan. As such, EuroClio emphasised a few other important point of actions such as the need for:

 

  • The development or improvement of easy to use tools that educators can use to create, share and adapt their own open education learning resource.  
  • The development of high quality open education.
  • Research to identify and share strategies for the use of effective digital technologies for teaching and learning, especially in the humanities. 

You can read EuroClio’s Position on the Digital Education Action Plan here.

How can Assassin’s Creed be used in History Education?

Fani Partsafyllidou Reviews ,

The stunning landscape of Ancient cities in Assassin’s Creed is too good to be neglected by the educational community.

What is Assassin's Creed?

Some of you might ask: ‘Assassin's Creed? A game full of blood, weapons, and beheadings?’

An action-adventure game, Assassin's Creed, was released in 2007. Having gained remarkable popularity, as it now counts 95 million players and it is one of the most successful games of all time, it kept improving its virtual world making it more and more detailed and sophisticated. Ubisoft, the developer company, decided to recreate entire ancient cities, street by street, to offer a fascinating world to the players, and hired a team of historians to do so.

Exploring Ancient cities

The final product was so captivating and informative that raised the question: How can this 3D, interactive depiction of ancient cities help education? Then, the discovery tour was created: a version of the game in which you can explore the cities, statues, and customs shown in the game without the gameplay.

Your character can walk, ride a horse, or fly on an eagle to see the city. Each time she reaches a station of the tour, you can listen to a short narration of a historical fact and you can view a relevant artefact. There is an abundance of information to unravel. The Ancient Egypt tour includes 75 tours, of various epochs, locations, and topics.

Is it accurate?

The game is accurate in instances that we have historical knowledge over what happened. In instances where the historical accounts are incomplete or contrasting, the mythological or artistic element takes over. The tour acknowledges this fact in ‘Behind the Scenes’ stations, where it is explained which parts of the game are historical fiction, and which parts are accurate. Some adjustments had to be made to support the gameplay as well, for example there are many statues and monuments to make navigation easier. Overall, the creators describe it as ‘not an accurate, but an authentic experience’.

Is it informative?

The player absorbs historical details just by exploring the city, such as

  • The people: demographics, the proportions of the population regarding age and gender
  • clothes of the time
  • the presence of horses and other animals in the streets
  • a variety of shops and work stations with products of the time
  • the materials used for the roads and buildings
  • the architecture.

Historians, experts, and universities worked together to provide these details. Moreover, the tour provides a series small lessons that the users can hear when they visit the respective place.

Abstract time period

The simulation of the city does not reflect a specific date, which means that some parts may be of an earlier and some of a later date. That falls under the issue of our historical knowledge, as mentioned above. Since we do not have complete city plans for the ancient world, the researchers combined in the same city plan the bits of information that are available, even if they are asynchronous.

Listening to Dead Languages

An astonishing aspect in Discovery Tours is that the player hears ancient languages spoken by actors. This is a truly unique experience. To produce the sound of Ancient Egyptian, a team of linguists, Egyptologists, and dialogue coaches worked together. The dialogues are fictional and based on Egyptian Grammar.

Things change in Ptolemaic Alexandria, where walking around the player hears Ancient Greek dialogues. The language and grammar is Ancient Greek, and Greek actors were chosen for the narration, providing a modern Greek pronunciation.  Some of the dialogues I overheard from my surroundings while exploring the city were jokes about mother-in-laws, gossiping about someone’s clothes, and comments on yesterday’s wrestling game. For half an hour, Ancient Greek came to life.

Keep in mind

Video games as a way to teach History are not meant to replace reading, they are meant to inspire students to actually read. As such, Discovery Tours of Assassin's Creed are a perfect tool to attract the interest of the students about the explored time and place, and arouse curiosity to learn more.

You can buy it here. Make sure to check the system requirements first.

Can video games improve history education?

Formal history education is mainly based on textbooks and teacher exposition; however, an increasing number of different resources are being used by educators to supplement their teaching. Among the various media employed, novels and films are certainly the most popular among teachers. The Historical Association, the main History Charity in Britain, provides a twenty pages list of historical fiction ranging from medieval sagas to modern day Afghanistan, “to help history teachers to inspire students of all ages in secondary school to read historical fiction for pleasure and also to get better at doing history”. Films too have long been utilised in history education since, according to recent research, movies were screened in classes already in the 1920s (R. Paxton and A. S. Marcus, 2018). Films are especially praised because visual information is more easily retainable than written information and, therefore, screenings can significantly improve students’ learning.

Introducing historical video games
Fiction and films remain the preferred media by history educators around the world, but another kind of resource is rapidly growing in popularity: historical video games. When we talk about historical video games, we refer to “those games that in some way represent the past or relate to discourses about it” (Chapman, 2016), games that start “at a clear point in real world history” and in which history has “a manifest effect on the nature of the game experience” (MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler, 2007). A large number of video games are set at different times and places in history, making them potentially valuable teaching tools. Players have almost unlimited possibilities: they can build the Colosseum in Minecraft, thus learning about Roman architecture as well as raw materials, or they can found, organise and defend a settlement in newly-discovered North America in Banished, or they can liberate Nazi occupied Europe by seemingly stepping in the shoes of an American frontline soldier in Call of Duty.

Although not (yet) as common in history classes as other tools, video games are attracting the attention of educators, particularly among the young generations, and academics too. Teachers who have experience using historical video games in class have started recommending them to their colleagues (see for example, the blog gamingthepast.net, or the youtube channel Histoire en Jeux), while researchers discuss how game playing influences students’ learning. Despite widespread interest and the availability of a wide range of historical games, ignorance and scepticism still characterise the attitude of many history educators towards video games. In this short article, we will address some of the main concerns about historical video games and suggest how they can benefit history learning with the help of Pieter van den Heede. Pieter, once a teacher in Belgian high schools, is now a lecturer at the History Department of Erasmus University Rotterdam, and his doctoral project focuses on the representation and simulation of war history in digital games.

Practical issues
First of all, let’s consider practical issues that may discourage teachers from using video games. Games have technological requirements that make their utilisation in class more complicated than that of, for example, movies. Schools may be unable to afford computers with sufficient hardware requirements (such as graphics cards, central processing unit, and memory) necessary to play modern video games. Although a service called Google Stadia has been developed specifically to allow users to stream games to any device, regardless of their technical specifications, it has not been very successful until now. Moreover, options of games can be limited to console/system compatibility, with some games exclusive to specific consoles. Managers are often reluctant to spend part of their limited school budget on the purchase of expensive equipment for game playing. Such reluctance may not only be due to financial constraints, but also to criticism towards the use of video games from the managers themselves, from teachers and parents and, surprisingly, from students, who are generally sceptical about the ability of games to improve their learning experience. Finally yet importantly, time constraint is also an issue. Teachers, who already struggle to keep pace with the strict timeline of curriculum implementation, find it challenging to allocate enough time for their students, who may be unfamiliar with the designated game, to learn how to play.

How video games can benefit history teaching
Regardless of the practical difficulties of their utilisation and their negative reputation, research shows that video games can significantly improve students’ learning experience. It is certainly easy to appreciate how they can teach a lot about material culture. Some games, which can be described as having a realist approach to the past, rigorously represent physical objects and environments, while also being consistent with broad historical narratives. Famous examples include the Assassin’s Creed series, featuring a variety of historical periods and situations such as, for example, Ancient Greece, feudal Japan, the Spanish Inquisition and the American Revolution, and allowing players to learn the functioning of a musket or to see the view from the trenches during World War I. This series centres on a fictional core narrative (about a clash between two secret societies, the Assassin’s and the Templars) that is set in accurately portrayed historical time periods. But according to Pieter van den Heede, the real added value of video games lies in the fact that they allow players to, for example, experience a sense of historical contingency and the path-dependency deriving from it. For example, in the Civilization series, the player will manage to build an empire only if he acquires and applies knowledge about, among other things, how geographic conditions affect the foundation and development of a city in ancient times. This approach can effectively convey the necessities, connections and general conditions that influenced past outcomes by creating an authentic “practice field” for solving problems and using real-world contexts and tools, thus helping students understand why historical figures made certain choices.

The shortcomings of video games and practical advice
Despite his passion for gaming, Pieter admits that, while historical video games have a considerable educational potential, they also have relevant shortcomings. For example, games are generally inadequate to teach social and cultural history. Since most players are interested in heroic roles and adventures, they prefer to play characters whose decisional power can significantly influence the game’s outcomes. Conscious of this, most companies produce games whose protagonists are kings, explorers and generals, rather than peasants or nuns. This inevitably leaves out of the picture the majority of members of past societies, preventing students from learning about their lives and role in history. For example, while it is possible to play female combatants in recent World War II games such as Battlefield V, it is not possible to learn about women’s experience of the conflict in more ordinary and common situations, such as replacing men in factories. It is possible that, as Pieter wishes, these experiences will be included in future games.

Another problem with video games is that they generally struggle to convey values alternative to those of modern western societies, and indiscriminately apply our mind-sets to different realities. This implies that players’ choices may influence the narrative of the game in ways that may be incompatible with historical evidence, and in the end, the outcome may differ significantly from real events. It is, therefore, important that students realise that they play a fictional character in a fictional role, and that they may make choices that the real protagonists of the events represented in the game did not or could not make. Moreover, Pieter recommends that students are given the opportunity to discuss their experiences during and after playing in order to compare their outcomes, debate the games’ historical accuracy and overall representational strategies as well as the intentions of its developers. In other words, the shortcomings of historical video games can be as valuable as their qualities for instruction, especially if students are made aware of how the games they play contribute to learning outcomes.

Ultimately, whatever the advantages and disadvantages of video games may be, teachers play a central role in unlocking their potential as educational tools, and it is thus essential to empower them. After all, teachers are those ultimately in charge of delivering instruction. They should be given the freedom, the time and, when the school budget allows it, the means to incorporate games in their lesson design if they so wish. But, as Pieter stresses, video games are just one of many tools available, and teachers should also feel free not to use them.

Written by Cecilia Biaggi, postdoctoral trainee at EuroClio and a Marie Sklodowska Curie Researcher in the LEaDing Fellows COFUND program at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Cecilia is particularly interested in minorities and nation-building, political history and education.