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!