"[A]ll models are wrong, but some are useful." (George Box, 1987, Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces, p. 424)
Modeling is a long-honored tool in science and math: as we observe a phenomenon we try to express it as a model. As the geocentric model of the solar system fails to hold up, it is supplanted by the heliocentric model; as the circular orbit model fails it is supplanted by the elliptical orbit model. (See Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions for a lot more like that.)
In the teaching community, science educators have employed models to teach physics (force diagrams), chemistry (atomic models), biology (systems models for cells or organisms, predator and prey models for evolution or ecological sustainability), and so forth. For examples of organized, thorough work on modeling in science ed, see the University of Wisconsin's MUSE project, Arizona State University's modeling program, the Waters Foundation's work on teaching systems thinking, and more.
The history community of course works with theses, which imply a model – Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, or Weber's thesis about Protestant vs. Catholic societies are built on top of assumptions about causal relationships. At times these thesis surface in the history education community, but only as a quick glance before returning to the work of covering the curriculum. As history educators race to pack it all in, they might establish certain patterns (cause and effect, or change over time) and we of course use timelines, which are very simple descriptive models. Our modeling is not in the same tradition as that used in science and math.
What I propose doing is building more interactive, detailed models to display historical events / figures / trends. The purpose of the models is only PARTIALLY to teach, "This is what happened." What I really want to get into is how is this model WRONG or (at best) INCOMPLETE. (In history, every model is guaranteed to be incomplete: reality is infinitely complex, and who is to say, from a historical viewpoint, which details can be left out without harming the model's accuracy?) This is where the provisional part of the title becomes important – we have to be able to change the model as we change our understandings, or adopt of new perspective, or add in a new factor. In history, every conclusion is provisional and contingent, resting upon the evidence that we available at the time.
What about the other social studies disciplines? Aside from history, the rest of social studies (geography, civics, economics, et al.) will use models a little more closely to the way that science educators have used them: to represent a usefully close approximation of a phenomenon. True, economics models are as contested as historical theses, but these actually feel a little more like conflicting dogma: each claims its own objectivity/superiority, and the issue of relevance and the need for provisionality are pushed into the background. (Feel free to correct me about that.)
History education: What I currently have is four models for the events up to and through the Revolutionary War.
1750-1763: Leading into and during the F&I / 7Y wars. Basically just introducing the mechanics (three stances, random assignment from neutral to other stances). Once the war starts, the odds ratio changes and folks should start turning much more anti-Revolution and pro-British. (I guess I could also add a debt feature and show it zooming during the war.)
1763-1773: Economic regulation model. Click on the stamp next to Prime Minister Grenville, put in place the Stamp Act (etc. -- Sugar & Molasses Acts, Townshend Acts). This will start bringing down the debt but start turning sentiment against the British and toward Revolution.
1773-1781: Military conflict. Click on Howe to send him into action; prop up anti-Revolution strength, but also incur debt and change the odds to favor Revolution.
1775-1783: French intervention. Click on Louis' money, ships, or troops to send them into action. Each will strengthen the pro-Revolution forces and change the odds in their favor. I didn't do any modeling of French national debt.
Part of what I'm after is the conversation AFTER the model. Yes, we play with the model and hopefully it's engaging / interactive (i.e., that "history class leaning forward" concept that I have mentioned), but I'm also hoping to have students think about how the model could/should be changed. All models are wrong...how are these wrong? Some models are useful...how could this model be made to be more useful / less wrong?
- Right now I'm treating the colonial opinion as pan-colonial...but typically we talk about regions (New England = more pro-Revolution, south = more anti-Revolution, or they were until the British military shows up down there). Could/should the model break these three political stances (pro-, anti-, neutral) into regional views, with a pro-, anti-, and neutral for each of the three colonial regions?
- Could/should I include French national debt? Was that a factor in Louis' calculations (or whoever was making his foreign policy for him)? What if I made French intervention a coin flip, with the odds being altered by factors such as the debt ("Whoa, I owe a lot of money...better not get involved in another war right this second") or the American ambassador to France ("Ben Franklin! Such a rock star! Can't say no to that guy!")
So what I have in mind is I guess a two-stage process:
- Get to know the model, see how it works and what issues it's trying to convey
- Attack / challenge the model -- in what ways does it fall short? Is it in any way misleading?
To my mind, a big problem for students in learning history is that they read everything as info ("This is what happened") and not as text ("This is an account, a claim about what happened"). The models give us a chance to hit both levels, the history-as-what-happened (info) and history-as-a-set-of-claims (text). But we lose the second concept if we don't spend time poking holes in the model.
Civics education: A set of models that present increasingly complex understandings of how a bill becomes a law
Model 1: Two branches of government interact
Model 2: Adding pass/no pass to the bill
Model 3: Adding party alignment
Model 3: Adding strength of partisanship to the model