History Labs – What are they?

I was reading a post on a teacher forum where a teacher mentioned doing “history labs”.

It was a great name – “history labs” conjured images of archaeologists carefully cleaning, carbon dating, and cataloging artifacts. Carefully translating ancient languages. Meaningful, authentic history work.

I was intrigued and wrote him about it. What, I asked, is a history lab? He replied – anything that isn’t notes or a worksheet. Marketing is everything, he said. I have to agree!

“History Lab”  had a much better ring than “art project”, simulation, role-play, analyzing primary sources – and it was all-inclusive as well. I could say “history lab” to my students and they knew to expect something fun and out of the box.


This is a picture of cuneiform writing from a history lab.

For me, a history lab was generally a stations activity. I would come up with 3-4 activities that I wanted my students to rotate through. I tried to make at least two of the stations hands on – either technology (interactive whiteboard) or arty. Occasionally, we would all do the same activity – building a roman arch, or making Byzantine inspired mosaics. Sometimes it would be a simulation or a role-playing activity. In a perfect world, a lab only takes one day. Sometimes the simulations would run two days, but I really don’t like to go longer than that. Shorter means I can do them more often. Shorter means I can take a risk on an activity that may be iffy – I’m only committing one day, and student input could be valuable in making it a more solid activity.

I would always let my students know when I had a lab coming up. It allowed us to look forward to it, and sometimes provided more motivation to get through the “meat”.  On the lab day, I had them line up outside my room and I put them into groups. Sometimes I had established groups written out on the overhead, sometimes I just counted them off.

I had really big classes last year, and like my groups to be about 3/4 students. Instead of creating more activities, I created more places to do the activities. Two of each station if there were going to be three for example. This was also perfect if I needed to differentiate reading materials or activities. In that case I would definately have groups pre-assigned.

I would set a timer for 12-15 minutes depending, and when the timer went off, groups would rotate as I had directed.

Ways I’ve assessed:

  • Sometimes they are completely experiential, with a writing assignment at the end. It can be a simple – what did you learn today or as complex as you want to make it. This is actually a great “cool down” before switching classes.
  • Sometimes I make up a handout which explains the lab and what students are to accomplish at each station – these usually have a question/reflection for each station.
  • Sometimes they explore a topic we took notes on already, then we have the lab, then students complete a right-hand assignment in their notebooks based on the notes and lab.

History Labs can be an easy way to differentiate – not every class needs to have the same stations, or if you are teaching multiple ability levels in one class you can vary the types of stations. You could even vary it to the student – telling John that he should complete the first two rotations, then come to you for the third station, as an example.

In Part II, I’ll give some examples of actual labs I’ve done and talk about sources for materials.

1 comment so far

  1. NeeCee on

    Ancientciv, thanks so much for the detailed explanation of History Labs. I can see my students getting jazzed about doing these! Also, love the differentiation ideas for multiple ability levels. I hope the examples you’re going to share are about world history as I know you are moving to fifth grade. I can ‘t wait to try stations with my new class!

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