I haven’t posted in awhile. The last few weeks have been incredibly busy between my day job as a US History teacher, teaching a night class, and acting as a Regional Coordinator for National History Day. There is an old phrase that ‘the reward for hard work is more hard work’. Some people interpret this from the point of view of the kid that watches the ‘good kid’ doing a group project; that the person that works hard is a punished with more work (sucker). But as I get older, and now that I know more about game design, I realize it’s a quote about the Internal Motivator of Mastery. The person that works hard is learning and will be rewarded by learning how to do new hard work. The hard worker is not doomed to a life of monotony and toil but a life of stimulating challenge. Stress can be debilitating but it can also facilite innovation and creativity.

This post was not intended to be about me but that’s where it begins. Six years ago I began entering students into the National History Day competition and three years ago I became a Regional Coordinator for a newly created county region in South Carolina. Students create a researched based project that centers on a yearly theme. This year the theme was ‘Taking a Stand in History’ and our region saw some fantastic topics – from well know people like William Sherman and the Friendship 9 to less well know like Frank Kemeny. In this year’s regional we had over 400 middle school students and about 200 high school students competing with about 400 different projects. In the same way that game design concepts have allowed me to see how hard work is really a ‘Mastery’ tool, recognizing the game design elements of NHD unlock the reasons why the program is such a great teaching tool.

Jane McGonigal refers to games as(I’m paraphrasing) hard work the volunteer to do. To really be a game a player must be able to chose to play. She also says that to be truly engaged a player must be able to make meaningful choices. Once a player starts the game each decision must have an impact on the gameplay, the game world, the characters abilities, or some other relevant and visible outcome. This is where I find the true power of National History Day – Choice!

Ed Reform minded teachers love the concept of student choice and voice, but in the classroom it can be a difficult balance to pull of. NHD though offers students a wide range of choices to match their particular interests almost immediately. 

Choice 1 – Selecting a Topic 

  • Individual teachers might limit a student’s options, but NHD allows a competitor to select any topic as long as it relates to that year’s Annual Theme. A student can be interested in Wisconsin Native American Fishing Rights, Shakespeare, Star Trek, or ancient Israel – all topics are welcome.

Choice 2 – individual or group

  • This one has the potential to engage the Socializers and Philanthropists with group projects. NHD allows either individuals or groups of up to five. Best of all group projects compete against other group projects and individuals against other individual. 

Choice 3 – Competition Categories

  • This is where the true engagement, creativity, and mastery comes into play. NHD offers 5 categories of competition – historic papers, websites, exhibits, documentaries, and performances. Students research and develop an evidence based argument and then build a product in one of these five categories. Students must be creative within the rules constraints while they master not only historic skills but the professional skills of the category they have selected. Performers learn blocking and script writing, documentarians study Ken Burns, etc…

All of these choices engage the Autonomy Internal Motivator. I use NHD as a project grade but after an initial in November students continue to work on their projects until the March Competition. Typically it is also not my ‘best’ students that advance to the state and national levels. It is the students that select a topic and category they are interested in and select group members that have similar passions. Students often ask what topics the judges will like or what’s the easiest category to win. I know right away they will struggle. In the past three competitions I have had at least one project advance to states that had a student that almost failed my class. One was a performance in which the lead student wanted to go into acting, the second was a pair of young African American men that wanted to learn more about Civil Rights than MLK and then performed a 10 min original rap, and the third was an exhibit by several girls interested in women’s history. Others have also found a passion to explore but it was the Autonomy and Mastery that drove their success.

If you have read this far and would like to know more about National History Day, how to become a judge, or send students please comment and I will contact you!