Digging for the Truth

posted May 11, 2016, 6:34 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated May 11, 2016, 12:54 PM ]


I often go back and forth on the benefits of inquiry-based learning. I wonder how much input I should give before doing such activities. With this one I gave a ton. This ended up being our final activity for the Ascendancy unit (Islam and Africa) more by necessity than by choice. End of the year scheduling nonsense left just one open day to do it so there we were.

It worked out incredibly well.

For this lab students are given a narrative that a discovery has been made in the African desert using satellite imaging. It sounded a little crazy until two days ago it was announced that a 15 year old from Canada found a lost Mayan village this way. Life imitating art!

The discovery is the ruins of a crashed caravan. Throughout the Ascendancy unit my students are pondering the question of how the Islamic Empire grew. Was it primarily through conquest or peaceful interaction? This caravan serves as a conduit for that question. They are tasked with determining if this particular journey was one of peace or of conquest.

The exhibits I selected were chosen to be ambiguous. While some definitely lean toward peace or violence they could all go either way. I wanted to see if, using the information they had learned in the unit, they could come to multiple conclusions on each piece.

For example, the first exhibit is a stack of salt blocks. Most students claimed this showed it was on a peaceful trade mission. Good, that was the idea. We talked about Islamic influence spreading via the salt trade with Africa. When I prodded them to explain how it might show violence they were able to go a little deeper. They noted that just seeing salt on the caravan doesn't mean they obtained it peacefully. Perhaps they were bandits (which I had noted in class was a major problem of the Saharan trade routes.)

Another exhibit showed a stack of Qu'rans. Some students noted that on a peaceful mission they would likely carry these since they would often try to find converts wherever they went. Others noted that this implied violence as the Islamic Empire often forced surrounding people into following their faith. 

After looking through all 7 exhibits the students made their final claims. My first class was split nearly 50-50 (which is a good thing.) As they day went on more and more saw it as a peaceful mission. I'm not really sure why it changed. One note is that I have on-level students later in the day. They may not have been swayed by the first exhibit and just fit the rest of the story to their first thought. It is also possible that I emphasized certain exhibits more later in the day. Since I had a script I followed that seems less likely. It doesn't ruin the experience to have students mostly reach the same conclusion but it was not by design to be sure.

The lab showed me that my students were able to apply their learning from the unit to their new discoveries. That's what we historians do. We fill in the gaps in the historical record. Using inquiry as a closing activity is a great way to see if your students have actually learned the material in the unit. I suggest giving it a shot.

Join me next week as I do the exact opposite and start a unit with it!

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