More Than Dressing Up

The sixth grade students were dressed in togas.  They were gathered in the Humanities room in groups- the poleis (city-states) of Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Delphi.  They then presented anthems they had written and banners they created representing what they had researched and learned about their assigned polis.  As they presented, they cheered each other on enthusiastically. All of the students appeared highly engaged and happy- lots of smiling faces.

The 6th grade study of ancient Greece is carefully designed to be an engaging and motivating experience.  The process of learning about history and culture is animated by the simulation activity, in which students take on the roles of ancient Greek citizens.  The study extends beyond the research about the poleis to include reading of Greek myths, exploration of Greek roots in English vocabulary, and literary analysis of a Greek drama, Oedipus Rex.  The work is challenging, drawing on and practicing a myriad of skills: research, analysis and synthesis of content and concepts, writing, visual arts, careful reading, and collaboration.  And it is fun in a developmentally appropriate way- students love to dress up.

The dress up and simulation in Middle School Humanities class draws on the theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who writes about the psychology of being completely engaged in a creative activity.  Many of us can think of a time when we were so lost in an experience that everything else dropped away and we lost track of time.  Csikszentmihalyi called this an “optimal experience,” and the experience of it “flow.” When achieving flow, people feel happy and highly motivated.

A simulation, like the study of ancient Greece in 6th grade, offers students an opportunity to immerse themselves in the learning, so that it can become an optimal experience.  We know when we see it happening- a group of students working intently together, finding information about their polis, discussing what it means and how they might express it to others, and creating displays of their learning.  They are motivated to do the work because they are invested in the worthwhile experience- an internal driver far more powerful than any external motivator such as a test or grade. And when students are highly motivated, they put their minds to work, trying hard things, to understand deeply and achieve at high levels.  I was so pleased to see the students in togas because it leads them to so much more than dressing up.

Benjamin Mann