Teaching the Black Death with Systems Thinking

By Swenson, David | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Teaching the Black Death with Systems Thinking


Swenson, David, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


Winston Churchill suggested that "history unfolds itself by strange and unpredictable paths," (1) but however that might be, too many students of history tend to view the unfolding as a disconnected series of events, or perhaps worse as a mere collection of facts. Over the past several years I have introduced a different method of teaching history concepts in a variety of course settings, as well as in presentations to groups. This method involves systems thinking or understanding how events are related to and influence each other and combine in series and feedback loops to create very complex patterns. I propose that it is the identification and understanding of these patterns that make history useful in understanding the past, dealing with the present, and planning for the future. In this paper I describe how system mapping can be used to clarify the events of the Black Death in Europe and I provide some sample "maps." (The four figures in the essay are examples from students maps.)

Systems Thinking: Seeing the Connections

The modern versions of systems thinking are usually traced to the 1940s in the works of Ludwig von Bertalanffy on conceptualizing interconnected biological processes and Norbert Weiner on cybernetics involving feedback and control mechanisms. (2) This interconnected view of historical events adds a richness and sense of mystery that can stimulate the curiosity of students. The central idea underlying systems thinking is that events are not discrete occurrences in themselves, but are simply notable points in what are complex chains of events. These links might be causal or merely sequential. Furthermore, many of these are not necessarily a linear unfolding, but involve feedback and feedforward loops that continue to modify the events, sometimes subduing them, sometimes accelerating them. System maps can be very complex, but the simple ones presented here are sufficient for the purpose.

One example of a feedback loop is the effect of the increasing population on several aspects of medieval life that in turn feedback to check growth. In spite of earlier famines, the population of Europe was at its peak at the time of the plague. With a decreasing amount of workable land, the passing of land from father to sons left each with increasingly small parcels. As a result, inheritance changed so that only the eldest son received a parcel and the others more often left for towns to seek work and independence. Since establishing themselves in new trades took some time, they could not support families and tended to wed later or not at all, which then lowered the birth rates for these areas.

Systems thinking was promoted popularly in the James Burke 1979 PBS television series, Connections, and the companion book. (3) In the programs, Burke focused on apparently serendipitous historical events that led to major modern developments in technology. Instead of looking at single events in isolation, the relationships among events over time were emphasized. In our simulation, for example, the origins of the Black Death were in Mongolia, where an increasingly inhospitable dry climate forced animal herders (whose animals had been infected by plague-ridden marmots) to go south, where they exposed migrating Mongol warriors to the disease. As the Golden Horde expanded its influence throughout China and India, and eventually to Kaffa in the Black Sea region, the plague followed. Owing to recent developments in improving ship design and speed, the Genoese traders escaping from Kaffa spread it to Southern Europe when they reached Italian ports.

Designing an Effective Simulation

Learning is most effective when learners are exposed to realistic situations where they can use more of their senses to make the information more meaningful and personal. Brian McKenzie has noted how the availability of online resources matches the popularity of this media for the new generation of learners.

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