Achievement and Innovation in the Middle Ages: Students Compare Civilizations

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The computer game Civilization III allows the player to choose from among some of the great civilizations of the past, such as Roman, Aztec, or Babylonian. In a similar way, we divide seven medieval civilizations (Aztec, China, Europe, Inca, Islam/ Arabian Peninsula, Japan and West Africa) between seven student teams. Each team studies one civilization's social and technical accomplishments, gives a presentation to the rest of the class about what they have found, and then debates the question of which civilization gave rise to the most important achievements and innovations during the Middle Ages. Students seem to find this the most competitive and exciting unit of study in our seventh grade social studies curriculum.

Days 1-2: Problems and Solutions

To begin the unit, we ask students to name some of the problems they have in their own lives. These difficulties usually involve friends or boredom, which is typical for twelve year olds. Then we present a version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (See page 16).1 Students recognize that most of their basic physical and safety needs are taken care of pretty well. They are mostly aware of problems and struggles in the area of social needs as well as desires for the future, like getting good test scores and becoming better athletes.

Once we have a good sample of student problems, I ask students to think about possible solutions. Students come up with interesting ideas about studying harder, joining a school club, practicing basketball more often, and so forth. I then move students toward thinking about the Middle Ages by asking them what types of problems people in medieval civilizations might have had. At this point in the year, students have already learned a little about world geography and history, so they mention things like lack of drinking water in much of the Arabic Middle East, hurricanes crashing into the Japanese coast, and hostile militias threatening European villages after the fall of the Roman Empire.

I then ask them to open their books to search for some of the solutions and innovations created during medieval times to deal with various problems, both physical and social. Our school district uses the textbook History Alive/ The Medieval Worm and Beyond, which describes seven major civilizations of the Middle Ages and provides details about each one's technical and social innovations. (2)

For example, students read about the West African griots (itinerant storytellers, who are often also musicians and oral historians), whose spoken proverbs taught history and morals to the younger generation. Students "backward think" to the original problem for which this social innovation was created. In this case, the stories told by the griot answered society's need to pass on information. West Africa had no written language at the time.

Days 3-4: Relevance Today

For the next few days, I ask students to extend their thinking into the present, to inquiring about whether ideas and innovations born in the Middle Ages actually affect human life today. The History Alive/textbook provides some useful examples of this sort of connection: The idea of limiting a ruler's power, as stated in the Magna Carta, is further developed in the U.S. Constitution. Students also make informed guesses based on various sources of information. They see similarities of form between an Incan suspension bridge made of vines and suspension bridges made of steel today in San Francisco and New York. The Incas cultivated 200 varieties of potatoes, and some of these are the progenitors of the variety used in a favorite side dish-what we call French fries.

Days 5-8: Comparing Civilizations

Up to this point, each group has studied only one civilization in detail. I now ask each group to present its civilization's solutions and innovations to the whole class. I tell students to be alert for achievements-arising from any society--at have had the greatest impact on our modern civilization. …