A Possible Exercise for Understanding Colonization and Decolonization? [Case based pedagogy]

After reading “The Case Method and the Interactive Classroom” by James Foran, I am inspired to try this activity in my classroom in the next few weeks. Foran describes how his students were presented with a vignette from the History of the Pelopennesian War by Thucydides. In the ‘Melian Dialogue,’ the Malians must decide what they will do when confronted with the military power of the Athenians.

Foran has the students perform a reenactment by reading parts of the dialogue. Then, the students discuss the problem and possible solutions in small groups. The instructor allows them to work things out among themselves without suggesting answers. Then the students share their decision and the reasons for making it.

I would like to use this exercise in the unit of decolonization. While this is not true in every classroom, most of my students have lived in the US their whole lives and have lived pretty sheltered lives. None of them have had to confront what it would be like to have a foreign military power come in and threaten their entire way of life and their lives. Before we begin discussing Frantz Fanon’s thoughts on decolonization, it seems fruitful to discuss what the power dynamics were (are) like between colonial powers and people in colonies. By forcing the students to consider what they would do in particular situations, I believe that this will stir up genuine empathy for the colonized communities and help deepen their understanding of what Fanon believes is necessary for taking back their power. (Any comments on how I could pull this exercise off respectfully and successfully would be welcome below.) I think by working out the answer as a team, this also helps people who do not want to personally share their answer and their views. Instead, they would all be presenting a shared decision that is likely a compromise. This should help with how some of them shy away from sharing their thoughts with the big group.

I can imagine that students sometimes feel uncomfortable with these exercises precisely because there is no “right” answer. In the grade-based culture of most schools, students have learned to read and listen to lectures zoning in on ‘test material.’ While this doesn’t necessarily stop them from learning, it may get in the way of them learning something I cannot test them on but will still prove a valuable life skill. I will try to keep in mind the various comfort levels that students might have with thinking out of the box for this activity and reassure them that this is worthy of their time and not an exact science I would expect them to replicate and memorize. If they can relax about grades, maybe they will actually enjoy it.

Because of the theoretical orientation of my course, many of our discussions embrace the defining characteristics of problem-based learning: open-ended situations lacking a clear answer, students are expected to be working on solutions in small groups, and the instructor is a facilitator rather than a micromanager (David L, “Problem-Based Learning (PBL),” in Learning Theories, March 3, 2020, https://www.learning-theories.com/problem-based-learning-pbl.html). I think I often perform a version of this activity whenever I ask questions about the political implications of a certain theorist’s perspective. However, planning ahead and look for a clear decision from the students about what they would actually do in a situation takes their learning a step further, makes it more personal and memorable!


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5 Responses to A Possible Exercise for Understanding Colonization and Decolonization? [Case based pedagogy]

  1. reemacademicblog

    I like the idea you suggest. It is always interesting to try successful approaches we hear or read about in articles and actually get the chance to test how successful they would be in our classrooms. I think it is worth trying to see how such a discussion or such a new experience they have never put in will make them use already established knowledge/opinions to provide arguments for their decision. I don’t have much to suggest on how to ensure a smooth flow of the exercise, but I think in your role as facilitator you should make sure that each group provide a decent argument for their choice, regardless of its nature. That will motivate them to consider all options and indulge in critical thinking process before deciding. And you have to make sure to stir the conversation in the right direction when you sense that things might get out of control. Good luck!

  2. Zhenyu Yao

    You explanations about the grade-based culture is really great. In many cases, students discuss the problem or cases not because they can learn something from discussion but they try to get a better grade. I come from a grade-based culture where students have to try their best to achieve higher grade. Then, I agree with you that students will enjoy more if they can relax themselves on grades, they probably can enjoy the discussion and learn more.

  3. It is interesting to see that you are applying CBL to learn historical and theoretihical concepts. I am not very experienced in the topics you are teaching but you might give different roles to different groups to as a class represent the society at the moment represented in the exercise. In other words, one group might be in charge of military operations, another group might be the economics, another one the agricultural, and so on. I think this approach might help the intricacies of the concepts taught. Another benefit of this approach is that groups will need to collaborate and be aware of the actions of other group which this might affect them. Finally, the professor might take the role of let’s say the major, or even the opposite band.

  4. brittanyshaughnessy

    Hi Hokie Instructor,
    Thanks for your post! If I am correct in assuming that you are a history instructor or something of the like, I think that the idea you suggested would work wonderfully in the classroom. I am all for bringing “out of the box” ideas to the classroom, and I believe that this exercise will help your students be intentional in their decision making, and maybe not focus on grades for a few minutes.
    With that being said, I also agree with your notion that grades are not the be-all-end-all of learning. I am not saying that I was a genius in high school, but it always bothered me that the students who were good at memorization got the good grades, and even became validictorian. Fast forward to the graduate school application process, where you are forced to teach yourself high school geometry and algebra. If you are me, you have not used those skills in six years, and had to teach yourself an entirely new curriculum to take that test. All of this effort for it to not even be considered in the application process–it is mind boggling to me that it is still a requirement. Sorry for getting on my soapbox–great post!

  5. Hi, I really enjoyed your post and hearing about how you want to expand on Foran’s activity in a way that lets the class really go deep on their understanding of colonization, military occupation, power struggles, and all that it entails. I would be very curious to hear more about how you are thinking about it–especially with the continuous, written journal piece that Foran describes having his students commit to throughout the course as the experience new material. I think that’s the part that really crystallizes learning in a PBL, when students have to think about what they’ve read and then must write a critical response. How are you thinking about handling the student writing? Personal, semi-personal between you and them only or a more open forum like this with the blogs?

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