For many of my teenage years, Saturday afternoons began with packing snacks into a bag and rushing to my friend’s house for a game that has shaped friendships since 1974: Dungeons & Dragons.
For anyone who sadly missed out, Dungeons & Dragons is a game played at a table, usually by around half a dozen people. Each player creates a character (I was usually a dashing rogue), and together they embark on adventures within a world that only exists in their collective imagination. One of the participants serves as the Dungeon Master, the director of the game who tells the story and describes to the players what they can see and hear, giving them an unknown world to explore. Together the players solve dilemmas and overcome challenges: they may lift the curse from a village, loot ancient tombs, or slay a marauding dragon. Just standard Saturday afternoon activities, really.
Throughout my time in the classroom, I have sometimes wondered if the role of the Dungeon Master and the history teacher are fairly similar in some ways: both tell stories and direct interactions, but crucially they have the difficult task of inducting a group of people into a strange and unfamiliar world, helping them to make sense of its scope and details, and bringing its features and inhabitants to life.
Dungeons & Dragons is inspired by centuries of storytelling and literature, and the role of the Dungeon Master is derived from that of a writer who creates and conveys imaginary worlds. Any reader appreciates the difference between an author who paints a clear and vivid picture of the world in which their story unfolds, and one whose settings feel lifeless or confusing. The same, I think, is true for the relationship between teachers, children, and the history curriculum: while some curricula leave pupils seeing the past as an empty, patchy, and stale space, others conjure a vivid and cohesive landscape full of interesting people and places.
All of this left me wondering: if we want to shape and enliven our pupils’ visions of the past, might history teachers be able to learn from creators of imaginary realms?
Lands of the mind: the cognitive process of world making
There are good reasons why you might raise an eyebrow at this point. After all, the past and fantastical worlds have very different relationships with truth and reality. We can see the traces of the past in our own world, and as history teachers we are very keen for our pupils to understand that, yes, all of these things really did happen.
However, J.R.R. Tolkien explained in his essay On Fairy Stories that imaginary worlds are firmly rooted in reality. Tolkien believed that an imaginary world is only successful when it creates what he called “enchantment” or “secondary belief”, by which he meant the immersion of the reader within this world. Enchantment rests on an inner consistency of the secondary world, and this can only be achieved by skilfully rearranging (rather than dismissing) reality. Successful fantasy, Tolkien argued, “is made out of the primary world.”
While imaginary worlds are more real than we might think, the past is actually further removed from our own reality than we often assume. In The Idea of History, R.G. Collingwood argued that the past is ephemeral; it is by its very nature gone as soon as it becomes the past, and can never be directly observed or known. The only way we can access the past, Collingwood wrote, is through a process of “historical imagination”.
What follows from this is that imaginary worlds and the past are both created in our minds. The philosopher Nelson Goodman took this idea one step further: he argued that all of our understandings of reality are in fact “made” in this sense. Goodman believed that humans constantly “construct” different worlds or world versions in their minds, in an ongoing process that he called “world making”. Building on Goodman’s ideas, the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggested that the process through which our brains create these worlds is largely the same, no matter if they are real or not.
What all this means for history teachers is that in the minds of most children, medieval England and Middle Earth are equally strange, unfamiliar, and entirely imagined places – and that the process through which children construct these places in their minds is very similar indeed. If we want to help our pupils imagine the past in clear and compelling ways, then understanding how storytellers create imaginary worlds might be one of the best models that we can turn to.
Curating the imagined past: the public process of world building
World making is an invisible process that is unique to every child, and we can never fully know what our pupils’ ideas of the past truly look like. We can, however, ask ourselves what we have explicitly done to curate our pupils’ imagined pasts, and what we might reasonably expect these to look like based on our own actions. While we have little control over the world making that happens within pupils’ minds, we do have control over the external and teacher-led process that underpins it – a process that we might call world building.
The purpose of world building is to put the imagined past at the heart of the history curriculum, and to plan carefully what we want this constructed world to look like – not just within lessons, but across pupils’ study of history as a whole. Just like a good history curriculum aims to bind events and time periods into coherent chronological frameworks, world building seeks to connect the places that pupils encounter in their study of history into a vivid and coherent world. History, after all, is rooted in time and place: if pupils are to understand past events and processes, they must first be able to make sense of the places in which they unfold.
This might seem like a daunting task, but luckily other people have already done a lot of the thinking for us – and here we pick up on our original quest. The Dungeon Masters’ Guide 3.5 (yes, there are several versions) breaks down world building into two basic approaches: building inside-out and building outside-in.
In the inside-out approach, the world builder begins with a small area and gradually builds outwards. At this point, the audience does not need to know what the whole world looks like, and receives new information only as needed. “Eventually you will have an entire kingdom developed,” the guidelines advise, “with the whole derived from what follows from the initial starting point.”
By contrast, the outside-in approach begins with a big picture and moves from large-scale basics down to small-scale details. It starts off with a survey of kingdoms or a vast empire, then outlines the general conditions within a particular region, and eventually moves down to a town or a village. The specifics of this small area reflect and tie back to the basics that the world builder previously outlined for the larger areas.
Since I learned about these two approaches, I have noticed that historians who write for wider audiences use them all the time. Pick up any popular history book, and I promise that you will not be able to unsee this. In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, for example, Ian Mortimer throws the reader straight into the alleys of medieval Exeter, but then proceeds to build outwards to London and, eventually, the towns and villages of the English countryside. Marc Morris, on the other hand, opens King John with a broad spatial sweep of the Angevin Empire, but then builds inwards by taking us into the besieged castles of Normandy, the towns of Aquitaine, and the shires of England. It is this gradual process of building the imagined past inside-out and outside-in that gives these settings such coherence and clarity, and allows us to experience them as imagined worlds.
This, essentially, is how I think world building might work in history teaching: as a continuous curricular process of building inwards and outwards in recurring motions – somewhat like playing a curricular accordion that expands and contracts, only to expand again, aligned with the pace and rhythm at which pupils move through the imagined past. Through this, I hope that we might be able to construct cohesive and evocative mental landscapes, into which teachers and pupils can enter together, and which leave pupils able to navigate and roam this world with confidence and purpose.
What might world building look like in the classroom?
World building is first and foremost a curricular process. We might begin by looking at our existing curriculum and specifying what each enquiry will look like as an imagined landscape. From there, we can plan how to build each of these landscapes within the enquiry (building outside-in, inside-out, or a combination of the two), and how we will eventually connect all of these landscapes into a coherent world.
I believe that this planning process is essential before we start thinking about what world building will look like in the classroom. Once we know what places we want to visit and what journeys we want to make, world building opens up an exciting field of pedagogical innovation. So far, three methods stand out to me.
Storytelling: Stories are powerful because our brains find them easy to understand and easy to remember. They are also excellent ways of providing points of entry or windows into imagined worlds, and they are structuring devices that bind places together and make them meaningful to us. Readers of The Lord of the Rings, for example, will have clearer imaginations of the places they experience in the story (like the Shire) compared to those that are only mentioned in passing. In her article in Teaching History 173, Chloe Bateman showed powerfully how stories allow pupils to turn lifeless and disparate historical “facts” into vivid and cohesive landscapes. We need to bear in mind, though, that imaginary worlds extend beyond the stories that are set within them. Teaching content as narrative is an important vehicle of world building, but imaginary worlds are to some extent, as the media scholar Mark Wolf put it, “transnarrative”.
Maps, diagrams, illustrations: Almost every fantasy novel comes with a map of its imaginary world, and cognitive psychology helps to explain why. Allan Paivio suggested that the brain processes images (such as maps) synchronously: we see all information at once, and this makes it easier to understand the relationships between individual pieces. (Try making sense of Frodo’s journey without referring back to Tolkien’s map!) Maps, diagrams, and illustrations are therefore powerful tools to help children see the structure of imagined places. Developing pedagogies around visuospatial representation will be an important part of building worlds inside the classroom. Hugh Richards’ trailblazing work on teaching the structure of an Anglo-Saxon manor through diagram-based modelling is an excellent example of what this might look like in practice.
Historical questions about place: Detail and structure are important elements of imagined worlds, but so are the people that live inside them. We want children to imagine the past as a dynamic social environment – and not as a two-dimensional backdrop. One way to achieve this, I think, might be to frame content through historical questions that interrogate the relationships between places and their people. Michael Riley’s enquiry question “Did the towns make people free?” is a great example: it requires pupils to imagine several places in the past, but also encourages them to consider how people interpreted and interacted with these places. Similarly, Kathryn Elsdon and Hannah Howard’s article in Teaching History 176 shows that questions about material culture (the way humans interact with objects and architecture) can reveal the intimate connections between people and the world around them.
Why is world building important?
Planning and building worlds is exciting and enjoyable work, but it runs on our most precious resource: time. Despite this, there are two reasons why I think that putting the imagined past at the heart of what we do is worth the effort.
First, world building underpins historical thinking. The imagined past informs the questions that we ask about the “actual” past; it makes these questions meaningful to us; and it ultimately helps us to answer them. Sam Wineburg has argued that thinking historically relies on pupils’ ability to construct “situation models” or cognitive representations of the past. For example, pupils will only be able to make sense of primary sources about medieval warfare if they can picture battlefields and formations. Additionally, just like we use history’s second-order concepts to give content shape, world building gives content texture. Developing clear and coherent visions of the past will help pupils to distinguish between places and time periods, and thus prevent the content they study from blending into one. In short, world building helps our pupils to get better at history.
Secondly, world building and world making are key elements of what makes history intellectually stimulating and enjoyable. The social historian Keith Wrightson has said that one reason why studying history is worth our time in the first place is that it is “imaginatively enriching: “it involves rediscovering a lost world, and that takes imagination.” Tolkien believed that delving into imaginary worlds and finding joy in their “arresting strangeness” was a “natural human activity”. The evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides have come to a similar conclusion, arguing that the ability to “simulate” situations seems to occur innately in the human species; that all cultures create fictional worlds; and that humans have evolved special cognitive systems that enable us to participate in these worlds. In other words, humans find imagined worlds intrinsically fascinating. A historical education that neglects world building may thus neglect one of the most wonderful parts of our subject.
This, I believe, would be an enormous loss. Each time our pupils enter their history classroom, I would like them to feel as if they are about to embark on adventures in a strange and arresting world; a world where there is so much to discover, so much to see. World building, I hope, might help us to move one step closer to this aim – and perhaps allow our pupils to feel the excitement that I felt whenever I packed my snacks on a Saturday afternoon, preparing to delve into imaginary realms.