One of the great thrills of teaching World History is sharing with my students the history of the Mongols. In past years, I gave an introductory lecture and then over several days we discussed a variety of readings exploring different historians' views of Genghis Khan and the Pax Mongolia. Students then wrote an analytical essay assessing the role of the Mongols in shaping the 13th century. This year I threw the old plan out. This year students were going to chart their own course with the Mongols. I assigned three short readings by Jack Weatherford, David Morgan, and Gregory Guzman. We spent two days comparing approaches and interpretations to the topic, though not much actual history.
Then I introduced the project.
One student asked me if we were doing the project before we studied the unit. I said yes. This worried them. A second student asked how they would know what to research. I suggested we brainstorm their existing knowledge and from there they should discuss with their neighbor what they thought they wanted to learn. They didn't think they knew very much -- and they were correct!
The homework over the weekend was to post on our class wiki the topic they wanted to explore, the questions they hoped to answer through their research, how they intended to demonstrate what they had learned to me and their classmates, their plan and timetable for completing their work, and the rubric they wanted me to use in assessing their work. They were welcome to work with a partner, though no group could have more than three members. The proposals were to be posted in the class wiki. They were all expected to comment on and make suggestions on each others proposals. I commented on their proposals and in most cases asked for greater specificity in their rubrics. For instance, how was I to recognize quality in their report? Or what did it mean to have clear visuals? Ten days later our class ended up with a film on Mongol food and the steppe environment, a wiki examining the social structure and culture of 13th century Mongols, a Prezi examining the conquests of the Mongols after Genghis Khan died, a film examining the life of Genghis Khan up to his election as Great Khan, and a multimedia presentation on the conquests of Genghis Khan after his election (complete with poster, Prezi, and demonstration with models of Mongol battle formations).
Throughout the research process students shared in our wiki what they were learning, lifted up questions they were having and offered help and advice to others in the class based on what they were learning in their own research. I also weighed in with my advice and suggestions. In the end, I know that students have learned much more about the Mongols then they ever have before. They have worked intensely to pursue knowledge as completely as their sources would allow (they don't read Mongolian, they couldn't hold the arrows in their hands, they have never been to the Asian Steppe, and most have never ridden a horse!). My weakest students were authoritative and thorough. They might have rebalanced with a bit more over arching thesis versus detail, but I was impressed (as were their peers) with the accuracy and curiosity they brought to their work. My strongest students were empowered to construct their own meaning and understanding of the Mongols. While no one worked on exactly the same topic, taken together, the class (including myself) has learned more about the Mongols than any previous class.
There were a few bumps along the way, they all used a source from Ask.com with an author that appeared credible based on her credentials, but when tested against the big names in Mongol History, her facts didn't exactly jibe. I commented on this in their wiki updates and finally had to announce to the class the flaw. But this source issue actually allowed us to have a conversation about the importance of knowing who the important scholars are whenever you do research. The second bump had to do with book sources. I had showed them copies of several books on the Mongols. These were available in our classroom for them to consult. The two groups working on different phases of conquest, complained that they weren't finding lots of details. I suggested they refine their search terms, consult Google scholar, and J-Stor and asked them if they had consulted the books on reserve. They were still coming up empty. So I opened the books to the sections on various conquests and showed them where to start looking. Sheepishly, the students in question admitted that in this case the books had what they needed. Another great teachable moment about the need to continue to use old tools.
Along the way, two students learned to use film editing software, one learned how to watch herself on film without dying of mortification, three learned to work around image problems with moodle wiki, four students learned to use Prezi (now if only I could!), and one student learned how to film boiling oil without getting burned! Their research skills were stretched and refined making them ready for our major research project in the winter term--three weeks in the library on a topic of their choosing (as long as it falls between 1000CE and 1920CE).
They were scared at the beginning. One student confided in me that it felt daunting to be responsible for determining what needed to be learned. On Monday, All Saints Day, we will debrief the whole project and process. I am willing to bet, that given their druthers they will choose project first (project instead of) over our other approaches to topics in World History.