Five Ideas for Model Making in History


Designing and realising a physical model can be a very engaging and stimulating experience for bringing history alive for students in a novel and memorable way. It also provides some superb display material for creating an engaging classroom environment.

Heraldic Shields

A fixed feature of my school calendar is a study with younger students of the principles of heraldic designs. Each student firstly complete an interactive questionnaire at ActiveHistory which asks them a series of questions about their personality, interests, family and ambitions. It uses this information to provide them with the colours and symbols to incorporate into their shield design. Students then use this information to produce their own historically accurate heraldic shield in cardboard, wood or metal and explain the meaning of each symbol in a written account which they attach to the back. I then film each student holding up their shield and reading out their account. The shields can then be placed on display alongside a QR code which links through to the video of the shield being explained by its creator.

Medieval Cathedrals and Castles

Designing a castle is a popular project for younger students, but I prefer getting students to produce their own design for a cathedral complete with Gothic and Romanesque features as appropriate. We start by looking at the features of both styles of architecture – with a stress on the engineering and mathematical side of things as much as anything else – and then each student produces either a design or, ideally, a model of their cathedral. Although the preferred material is often cardboard, an increasing amount of students are keen to produce their models using software such as MineCraft or Google Sketchup and then export this as a video complete with a narrative.

World War Two Toys

As part of a study about the civilian experience of World War Two, provide students with primary source instructions about how to ‘make do and mend’ by producing their own inexpensive playthings. There are several freely downloadable facsimiles of booklets provided for this very purpose during the war which can easily be located using the web, including “Toys in Wartime” (from the US) and the wonderfully entitled “Hundreds of Things a Boy Can Make” (from the UK – all of which, believe it or not, are within the capabilities of 21st-century girls too). Each student should nominate a different toy that they will produce as a homework project, and then these can be played in a subsequent lesson and peer-assessed to determine upon the overall winners.

World War One Trench

One subject which lends itself particularly well to model-making is designing a first World War trench. Students are presented with a list of key features of a trench on the Western Front – duckboards, parapet, dugout, sandbags and so on – and are marked according to how many of these features they include in their final model. As an added twist, students could be divided into groups to produce models which represent different aspects of the trench experience: for example, highlighting how a German trench was different to a British one.

Design a Memorial

Challenging students to design or produce a memorial for a key historical event, period or individual is a thought-provoking way of consolidating or revising a topic. For example, for Holocaust Memorial Day, I provide students with a range of memorials from around the world commemorating the Shoah and other genocides. I then ask students to consider carefully such questions as:

What does the memorial get people to think about? (Will it focus on the causes, or on the effects, of Genocide? Will it encourage quiet reflection, or provoke violent debate?)

What feelings does the memorial evoke?      (Regret? Guilt? Hope? Sadness? Anger?)

What form does the memorial take? (Sculpture? Mural? Gardens? Museum?)

Where exactly is it situated, and why?          (e.g. in a city / in the countryside)

After this process of reflection is complete, students then produce their own Holocaust memorial.

Taking it further

Although cardboard, plasticine and lego are popular materials for classroom model-making, and software such as MineCraft and Google Sketchup provide a more hi-tech alternative, students could also be encouraged or instructed to produce an edible model in the form of a cake.