Columbus and my voyage of discovery

May 16, 2003

Problem-based learning is common in maths and the sciences but can it work in the humanities? Natalie Zacek tried it out on her second-year history students

Sitting on a train or bus, it is tempting to "stereotype" people by their newspapers. The Guardian reader is a trendy lefty, The Telegraph 's is a home-counties matron or The Sun 's is a leering lad. They all may be reading the same news story, but with a different slant.

Just as readers recognise that different newspapers interpret events differently and buy accordingly, students must be aware that academic texts, whether from primary or secondary sources, are subject to similar interpretation.

Students often take assigned texts as gospel truth and fail to question or critique the authors' ideas and conclusions. This can undercut the goal of tutorials, which should encourage students to criticise, analyse and argue.

But forms of teaching and learning exist that can help students question and rethink the implicit and explicit assumptions about sources.

This spring, I experimented with problem-based learning on my second-year course, "Cultures of Empire". The course was organised around several themes, such as foodways, architecture and environment, dress and bodily habits. The idea was to get students thinking about how imperial control can be as much a matter of cultural domination as it can be of military might, technological prowess or economic power. When we first offered the course, tutorials were based around discussion of articles drawn from historiography, anthropology and literary studies.

Although students gave enthusiastic evaluations, tutorials were unsatisfying. In any week, several students would fail to appear and several others would claim to be confused about or unable to get copies of assigned texts.

A tutorial for 12 might attract only eight or nine students. Three or four would carry the discussion for those who were absent, had not done the reading or felt too shy to contribute. This was frustrating for me and for the students. Those who failed to participate often ended up having a limited understanding of the material, as reflected by lower-quality essays and exams.

I decided to experiment with problem-based learning, to which I had been exposed through workshops in my department and faculty. I was not optimistic. I could see that PBL, in which students draw on given information to ask and answer central questions in a particular course or subject, might work in maths, science or medicine, but I wasn't sure that it would work in the humanities. I decided to try three sessions and revert to old-style tutorials if it did not capture the students' interest and spark debate.

The first tutorial was about how Europeans interpreted and imagined the bodies and customs of the newly "discovered" Native Americans following Christopher Columbus' voyages. I selected and photocopied images and short texts through which Europeans presented their ideas of the nature and appearance of these people.

I deliberately did not tell the students when or by whom these items were produced. Instead, I distributed them and formed the students into small groups, each responsible for one image or text. They had five minutes to examine their piece before presenting it to other students. They had to make informed guesses about when, where and for whom the words and pictures were created, and how these representations shaped and were shaped by the initial European encounter with the "other".

One group read excerpts from Columbus' logbook, in which he described his first encounters with Native Americans. I wondered whether the students would be aware of Columbus' mental world. Would they question how he "knew" certain things about the Americans, such as their alleged lack of religion or willingness to obey the Spanish crown?

I hoped they would see that Columbus could not help but draw on his attitudes regarding race, nationality, religion and his sense of aesthetics and civilisation in understanding the "natives". Would the students grasp how publication of his log shaped how later Europeans mis/understood the Indians?

I was pleasantly surprised. Students started to question the authority of the words and pictures. They moved from summarising the main ideas to criticising them. By looking at different kinds of sources, the students gained a stronger understanding of the ways the colonial cultural encounter developed. They became, in effect, ethnographers of European imperialism.

Group work also seemed to build confidence in shyer students. Many seemed less intimidated presenting their piece to the whole class.

Judging from their essays, students are applying this same critical reflexivity to secondary sources and to thinking about the course and its goals. When using visual sources, they reflected on whether such images were accurate depictions of people, objects and places, or whether they looked as they did because of particular intellectual or technical challenges faced by their interpreters. I will wait until I have marked the students' exams to determine whether I should retain the all-PBL method of tutorials for next year, or whether I might want to combine it with more traditional methods. But so far, so good.

Natalie Zacek is lecturer in history and American studies at the University of Manchester.

More on problem-based learning in next week's L: Learning Skills in Higher Education supplement.

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