Reacting to the Past – In Today’s Classroom
Patricia Todebush is Associate Head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
The Reacting to the Past (RTTP) pedagogy originally created at Barnard College in the late 1990s consists of a series of elaborate role-playing “games,” each set at some critical juncture in history, in which students are assigned roles informed by important texts. The debate structure of the RTTP games encourages students to identify with differing points of view, be motivated to engage with new and different ideas, and to present the arguments necessary to support their team.
Students benefit greatly from participating in RTTP. They are required to use primary resources to inform their positions and formulate coherent arguments. To “win” a RTTP game, it is necessary for students to work with others on their team to accomplish a common objective. The students must share research, discuss historical concepts and positions, and create a plan. Playing a RTTP game can help students learn to speak objectively about tense and complicated political subjects, regardless of their personal position. During difficult discussions, players understand that they are acting as characters, and will continue to be friends and classmates afterwards. Compartmentalizing in this way provides a useful skill for navigating difficult real-life situations and can help students to think objectively in the future.
In a RTTP class, every student is required to deliver several speeches that effectively argue their character’s position. Students will become more comfortable with public speaking throughout the sessions. In addition, each character will have to use historical facts effectively to support their arguments, and must refute other characters’ positions. Students are also expected to write research papers that inform the speeches they give in class. Instructors provide feedback and grade the oral arguments that each character makes as well as the written work that is submitted.
I have been actively using RTTP games in my science classes for a number of years. The science-based games were developed through a grant sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The science games are a little different from traditional RTTP games as a result of the fact that they are designed for traditional science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses taken both by science majors and by students pursuing other degrees. In most cases, the science course already covers the background material needed for the game, so the RTTP component provides a deeper immersion in the topic and highlights some of the controversies related to it. In traditional games, the game itself provides the backdrop for the course content and learning outcomes. As a result, the science games tend to be shorter.
The game I used in my Survey of Chemistry class this past academic year was Food Fight – Challenging the USDA Food Pyramid, 1991. The game is cast as a congressional hearing to evaluate the work of the USDA in developing the Food Pyramid in 1991. The background for this game is that the USDA’s Food Pyramid document angered various interest groups in agribusiness, as well as some nutritional experts. The role of special interests and their influence on basic nutritional science is an important factor in the hearings. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which includes the FDA and CDC, objects to inherent conflicts within the USDA, which HHS argues are reflected in the Pyramid. HHS seeks to have nutritional advice removed from the purview of the USDA and transferred to itself. In playing this game, students learn that the Pyramid reflects a combination of science and politics. They are then able to conclude that all governmental science policy is based on both science and politics.
Including RTTP in your course curriculum can be daunting at first, but the learning outcomes achieved by the students and their enjoyment in participating in the game are amazing. I strongly encourage you to consider attending the RTTP program at UGA in January; the best way to learn about RTTP is to play a game!