The world's great battles can indeed be taught from textbooks, but an interactive approach encourages pupils to think more carefully, says Crispin Andrews.Impulsive, overconfident and foolish or a fallen hero betrayed by the incompetence of subordinate officers? GCSE pupils at Brannel School in Cornwall have been using a simulation based around the Battle of the Little Bighorn, to form their own opinions on one of the most controversial figures in American history - George Armstrong Custer.
As pupils watch the PowerPoint presentation the scene is set. It's the early summer of 1876 and Lieutenant Colonel Custer is part of General Terry's regiment, leading his 7th Cavalry in a campaign to round up the area's remaining free plains Indians and force them on to reservations. Groups led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse refuse and are joined by hundreds of other Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho who had left the reservations in the springtime. Using basic military maps, the simulation shows how the US forces plan to trap their enemies and defeat them near the Little Bighorn river - with General Crook advancing from the south, Colonel Gibbon from the west and General Terry with Custer from the east. It is only when Terry sends Custer and his men off to block any potential escape by the Indians that things start to go wrong for the US forces.
Stuart Fewster, Brannel's head of humanities, has already provided pupils with background information on Custer - an ambitious soldier with both high-profile successes during the American Civil War and the odd foray into politics behind him. Stuart says: "The idea is for them to consider what Custer should have done as well as to find out what he actually did. As they answer each question in turn, they can begin to make their own assessments about the quality of Custer's judgments and his command."
As the pupils flick through the frames on the PowerPoint presentation, questions come thick and fast. Should Custer have followed his orders to simply block any Indian escape even though he believed that his force had been spotted by Indian scouts?
Was he right to attack first before the Indians could ready themselves, even though he had no idea how many opponents he would be fighting or where exactly they were? In the first place, should Custer have accepted General Terry's offer of reinforcements or is a good leader right to put total faith in the ability of his charges to face any challenge?
Was Custer's insistence that "The 7th can handle anything it meets" simply arrogance and bravado that didn't take the realities of the situation into account? Lastly, after dividing his forces, should Custer's own battalion have continued its advance even when he realised Major Reno's men, who Custer had ordered to attack a nearby Indian village, were in trouble and that things were not going to plan?
Stuart, who originally created the simulation for the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) for training purposes, explains that by using familiar presentation software such as PowerPoint there are few extra technology skills for teachers to learn and efforts can be concentrated on historical realities. "By providing pupils with a menu of questions to choose from, a whole range of different outcomes and interpretations can easily be created," he adds. As they make each choice, pupils click on the PowerPoint action buttons connected to hyperlinks allowing their ideas to be tested against what Custer actually did.
During discussions they recall prior learning about Custer's character, ambitions and earlier campaigns. He had previously divided his forces when attacking a Cheyenne camp on the Washita and some quickly point out that Custer's decisions may have been shaped by his previous successes using similar tactics, whereas others point out that it was Custer and Reno's dubious interpretation of orders in the heat of battle that led to the defeat.
Another youngster points out that the Indians simply outnumbered the 7th Cavalry so were bound to come out on top once Custer decided to fight them on his own.
"Whatever choices they make, the pupils are always taken back to what actually happened even if in retrospect Custer's choice was not a good one," says Stuart. "It's important that pupils don't choose paths based purely on hindsight or lack of sufficient evidence about how contemporary people would have acted."
He goes on to explain how it would be possible to get the same information across by reading extracts from a textbook or biography, but that an interactive approach encourages pupils to think more carefully about what did, could and ought to have happened. "Each pupil can come up with a slightly different interpretation of the individual and events in question and the activity can act as a basis for follow-up work using additional historical sources, essay writing and even provide the scaffolding from which a possible GCSE question on why Custer was defeated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn can be answered."