A Golden Ticket: Employing Hypothetical Situations and Questions in the History Classroom

Rosie Click

I always loved “choose your own adventure” books as a kid—the excitement of picking right, the risk of picking wrong, the seemingly endless possible combinations of choices and variety of satisfying endings. In some of the books, the perfect ending, known as the “Golden Ticket” ending, can only be achieved by choosing the exact correct combination of paths. The history of the “gamebook,” as this genre is generally known, possibly stretches back to the Song Dynasty, when the I Ching, or Book of Changes, was written. Readers had to toss lots in order to read this semi-spiritual predictive text. However, the modern era of choose your own adventure books began in the 1930s with Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins’ Consider the Consequences! Authors throughout Latin America were also thinking about this genre, including Jorge Luis Borges (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”/“The Garden of Forking Paths”), Julio Cortázar (Rayuela/Hopscotch), and Max Aub (Juego de cartas/Card Game). Other American and European authors also added to the genre over the years, but none were more commercially successful and lasting than Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery, co-creators of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. The publishing company that owns the rights to the books and concepts continues publishing them today, and their influence continues to be felt today (for example, the name of the patriarch in Knives Out is based on a character from a Choose book). Even Netflix has invested in movies where users choose their actions, though most have been horror or suspense (Black Mirror Bandersnatch is the most notable example). 

Leslie Jameson posits that these books were so popular among children because it gave them the right to make decisions, but also to take them back without consequences. If you disliked your ending, you could always flip back to page one and start over. In a larger sense, all hypothetical scenarios follow this logic: a popular game I used to (and still) play, “Would You Rather…?,” is predicated on being able to make choices without consequence- except perhaps, being chastised by your peers for choosing x-ray vision over the ability to fly. 

Hypotheticals occupy an interesting place in teaching and writing about history. As a part of an AP World History class I took in high school, our teacher had us participate in a simulation of global relations by choosing a continent to control. We made diplomatic connections with other teams, managed our natural resources, and even held elections that were sometimes contested. These were all aspects of governance we had learned about, but being the ones to make the decisions made the concepts very real, and gave “history” a personal touch. Games of this sort are very common in International Relations pedagogy, where they introduce students to both the information and praxis of the field. 

Another permutation of the hypothetical situation in the classroom is exploring alternative histories. Though not written by professional historians, alternate histories such as 1862 pose questions like “what might have happened if Britain had allied with the Confederacy during the US Civil War?” The best alternate history books ask “what if?” about events that were close to happening, or could have happened if just a few previous moves had been different. Students can also ask and answer these sorts of questions in the classroom. In a lesson plan designed by Peter Pappas of the School of Education at the University of Portland, students get a template with two branching paths—one is what actually happened, and the other is the alternative history path. For example, students might receive the question “What if JFK hadn’t been assassinated?” and are tasked with both recording what did happen along one path, and what might have happened along the other had the event not taken place. Students learn about the event through their research for one path, and speculate using what they uncovered to make the alternative path. A benefit of this kind of exercise is that it encourages creativity while stimulating critical thought about a certain point in history. Might JFK have won reelection and been the one to pass crucial civil rights legislation? Would the Vietnam War have looked different? How about relations with Cuba? These questions allow for original insights grounded in real trends and events. 

Asking “what do you think would have happened?” encourages students to move past basic levels of understanding and reach the sixth level of Bloom’s taxonomy of verbs, related to creation. Bloom’s taxonomy is a list of verbs related to student learning that can help instructors design lesson plans and learning objectives. While all six levels (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create) are pedagogically important, it is often harder to get students thinking analytically, evaluating possibilities, and creating new ideas. Using variations of hypothetical learning provides an easy entry into unlocking these ways of thinking and learning. Sean Cooke discusses his application of hypos, or hypothetical scenarios, to engage students in otherwise boring tasks. For instance, he employs hypos to review a school handbook and talk about misconduct. In the college classroom, instructors could engage first-year students in this kind of learning as they review university guidelines on plagiarism and cheating. Creating interesting scenarios is one of the most effective ways to generate student engagement and foster analytical and creative thinking. 

While these types of hypothetical games, scenarios, and questions might seem better suited for the high school or lower-level college classroom, upper-level students and even graduate students could benefit from more hypothetical thinking in the classroom. Professional historians themselves use it all the time in their writing. Marisa Fuentes follows enslaved women through the streets of eighteenth-century Barbados in her book Dispossessed Lives, imagining their movements based on the small amount of archival information she could find along with what is known generally about urban enslavement in the Caribbean. She connected individuals and the worlds they inhabited, making inferences about what they saw and did, always preceded by “might have” and “could have.” The Woman on the Windowsill is another excellent example of speculative narrative history with compelling analysis of the facts, written as a historically-grounded murder mystery. Employing hypothetical-based pedagogy to teach upper-level students how to think and write like this could produce outstanding results. 

Some History instructors find it easier to deliver material in the traditional way—students read books and articles, instructors lecture about them, perhaps there is some discussion. While this approach can be very successful, it does not usually stimulate student creativity in ways that hypothetical exercises can. In training the next generation to think critically about history, creativity and consideration of a multitude of possibilities is paramount. As historians, we write historical narratives. While they are fundamentally based in fact, creativity and making novel connections are what elevate history from recitation of known information to insightful analyses of people, places, and events. If teaching is like a “choose your own adventure” book, choosing hypotheticals can lead to greater student engagement and creativity. Sounds like the Golden Ticket ending to me. 

Image from “Choose You Own Adventure: You’re (Still) the Star of the Story” by Jen Brown, Retropond, 5 February 2021, https://retropond.com/choose-your-own-adventure/

Rosie Click is a first-year PhD student in the History Department at Georgetown University, advised by Dr. Bryan McCann. She received an MA in Latin American Studies from Tulane University in May 2022, and a BA in Latin American Studies and English from Tulane University in May 2019. Her work explores US-Latin American and US-Caribbean relations, particularly through the lenses of power and tourism. She is also interested in public history, museum studies, Caribbean literature, and academic editing.

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