Your typical Medieval PBL unit would typically be built around a driving question like “What was life like in 14th century England?” Students would research clothing, art, music, food and perhaps have a culminating event like medieval bread baking. This is inauthentic PBL in my opinion and doesn’t do this incredible period of time justice.
Stirling Castle, standing high on a Volcanic crag, dominates the land below, and is equalled only by Edinburgh Castle in it’s age and prestige. The Castle’s strategic importance, being situated as the gateway to the highlands, saw it besieged at least 15 times during it’s history. On a recent visit, I learnt that Stirling Castle changed hands 8 times during the Scottish Wars of Independence between 1296 – 1357.
Geographically, the Castle is almost impregnable on three sides, so it’s defences were focused on the inclined approach from the south-east. As I walked the Castle’s walls and looked out towards Stirling Bridge and then the fields of Bannockburn, I wandered why, given the fortress-like nature and position of this Castle, was it susceptible to being sacked so frequently?
To me this is a more authentic approach to a Medieval PBL unit which might be derived from asking a question like, “Could the sacking of Stirling Castle have been avoided?”
This is a rich question that is open-ended enough to allow all students, after under-taking some preliminary research, scope to take this unit in the direction that interests them most. Using Sketchup or Minecraft, you could challenge your students to re-design Stirling Castle, inline with the geography and technologies of the day, to be able to better withstand an attack or invasion. This approach would allow you to investigate politics, architecture, geography, science, materials, mathematics and culture, all through the lens of the Castle. Students would investigate a Castle as a defensive structure built for strategic purposes and investigate the different architectural components like towers, defensive walls, inside buildings, etc.
Even better, you could get them into some game-based learning using Castles 1&2. I remember first playing this castle-building sim on my Amiga 600, and it has stood the test of time surprisingly well. For only $5.99, it should be affordable for most schools.
From the website,
“Welcome to the world of Castles – a game of medieval diplomacy, treachery and power. To win you must survive. To survive you must scout the surrounding territories, defeat the local militias, subjugate the land with a Castle, feed and maintain the people, forge diplomatics alliances, appease the Church and unite the land under your iron fist.
There’s more. Now you can watch 30 minutes of BBC documentary footage which shows you how and why castles were constructed, planned, besieged and attacked prior to the age of gunpowder. Using this knowledge, you can create your own original castle designs or choose from 10 historical castles for your own personal fortress.”
In Video Games and Learning, Kurt Squires talks about the cognitive benefits of having students explore history by having it situated in context. Using games like Civilization or Castle’s to explore history, not only provides this situated context but allows an even more sophisticated form of experiential pedagogy to emerge where bias, gameplay, mechanics, inaccuracies, simplifications, generalisations and perspectives can all be explored.