The Value of Inquiry

My 10th grade students recently completed proposals for museum exhibits about Colonialism. The Colonialism Unit is framed by three Essential Questions:

In what different ways did colonialism affect both colonized and colonizer?
How did people resist colonial rule?
What different legacies did colonialism leave behind?

Our unit began with the book Things Fall Apart. As students adjusted to Chinua Achebe’s writing style and the ways the text immerses readers in Igbo culture, I began to introduce additional resources relating to colonialism. We watched sections of The Battle of Algiers, read excerpts from Aimé Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, read a section of Colonialism in Asia, and watched excerpts from the film Gandhi.

Partway through the unit I began to question my strategy of providing students with many different examples of colonialism and such a wide range of ideas before introducing their project. During our early discussions some students were speculating and even making conclusions about colonialism before they had much detailed information about specific historical examples.

It turns out my discomfort was unwarranted. Once students began working on their Colonialism Museum Proposal projects they began to immerse themselves in sources relating to different historical examples of colonialism. Burundi, Hawaii, Cambodia and many other locations began to take center stage as students became experts in order to design and create proposals which would then be presented to the museum Board of Directors (to be represented by their peers). The initial ideas and discussions that felt unrooted a week earlier were now providing rich material to be examined, compared, and challenged as students discovered resources, decoded historic texts, and processed information from multiple narratives.

It was as if the initial stages of the unit were spent weaving a basket that the students then filled with information, ideas, and interpretations.

Inquiry is a powerful learning tool when it is supported by background knowledge, larger issues and ideas, and consultation from a mentor. This allows students to immerse themselves in the challenging work of research, idea development, and the creation of a product for an audience.

The process has the potential to change what it means to be a student and learn in school.

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