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Bringing the world to our students: Using Project Based Inquiry to implement a cosmopolitan curriculum

Written by Gaby Shelow
May 02, 2016

When I first heard the term “cosmopolitanism” my mind immediately flashed to a scene from my favorite TV show, Sex and the City. I envisioned Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte sitting in some swanky Manhattan restaurant wearing the latest daring fashions. Little did I know that the term cosmopolitanism was actually a philosophy, one that, as a teacher, proves very valuable.

According to Kwame Appiah in his book Cosmopolitanism, the basic tenets of this philosophy are two-fold. First is the idea that “we have obligations to others…” and that these obligations apply to all of humankind, not just to those we know or care about at some level. Second, is that cosmopolitans should try to understand (or at least be interested in) the practices and beliefs that give individual humans a sense of significance or value (Appiah). In other words, all people should strive to appreciate the culture, traditions, and beliefs of other people. If that doesn’t hit to the core of an educator’s purpose, I don’t know what does.

As teachers, we spend hours upon hours trying to learn about and understand our students. Knowing where they come from and what they value can be just as important as knowing their test scores or the various accommodations on their IEP. We take the time to learn this because we know that understanding the student is the best way to help them learn and grow. But I don’t believe it’s enough for the teacher to be the only one in the classroom learning about others. Rather, I believe that it is the job of the educator to expose students to new and different experiences on a regular basis. After all, that is how they grow. As David Hansen argues in his article, Cosmopolitanism and Education: A View from the Ground, “Every new tradition in art, history, literature, language, and more that students encounter constitutes, in figurative terms, an address posing questions to them about who they are and who they wish to become.” In other words, an advantage of a cosmopolitan curriculum is that by exposing students to more diverse curriculum opportunities, and allowing them to learn about and from traditions and cultures other than their own, they will in turn, learn more about themselves.

Unfortunately, a drawback to implementing a cosmopolitan curriculum is that very few classroom teachers get the opportunity to travel the world with their students, exposing them to new cultures and traditions. Budget cuts and jam-packed schedules make even the occasional field-trip to a museum seem like a luxury. So how can we create a cosmopolitan classroom? This is the question that causes many teachers to sigh and give up. It’s too hard, there are too many roadblocks, it’s nice in theory but just not something we can achieve with our limited time, resources, etc. This is where project-based inquiry, or PBI, comes into play. Through the PBI approach, students are challenged to formulate their own understanding of the world using questions to drive their learning process. Project-based inquiry is a five-step process beginning with posing a compelling question, gathering and analyzing information, creatively synthesizing information, critically evaluating and revising, and finally sharing this information and/or taking public action.

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I have used this process in my 8th grade classroom with great success, but with scaffolding it can be effective for all ages of learners. The key to PBI, I believe, is having the students come up with their own questions for any given topic. I have found that this increases their “buy in” on the subject. For whatever reason, students are more excited to learn the answer to a question they have asked, than one I have asked of them. Imagine that?

But how do we get students to focus in and ask the right questions? After all, the goal of PBI is to get them to better understand cultures and traditions they know nothing about. How can students ask questions about something if they know nothing about it? What I have learned here is that preparing students to ask questions is just as important as having them ask the questions. For example, when starting a unit on Global Women’s Rights, one thing I wanted my students to focus in on was the pay discrepancy between men and women around the world. As such, before they created their questions I showed them a series of charts and graphs, many of which highlighted the pay gap between men and women globally. Consequently, many of the questions students formulated were based on the pay discrepancy between men and women.

Now, I could have told them that they needed to complete a WebQuest and answer questions at the end about men and women’s pay ratios globally. They would have grumbled through the assignment, turned it in, and forgotten about the information the next day (sound familiar?). But by having students create their own questions, not only did the engagement level sky-rocket, but their retention of the information, once discovered, was much better. Weeks after the unit ended, students were still making connections between the gender pay gap and our current topic of study. By allowing them to find answers to questions they asked, the information they collected became more valuable to them, and therefore was something they decided to hang on to for later.

Once students are hooked into a topic, the rest of the PBI model easily falls into place. As a middle school teacher, I am constantly looking for ways to get my students to take an interest in anything other than their phones. Using the PBI model in my classroom has been a game changer. After using the model to begin a discussion on water quality, students organized a fundraiser (on their own – without my prompting) as a part of the share and public action step.

In our increasingly global society, we need to prepare our students for the challenges they will face post graduation. The fact of the matter is, very few careers will allow them to work in total isolation. Through the use of technology, the world continues to get smaller and smaller. By learning to have an appreciation for the traditions and cultures of others in a cosmopolitan classroom, and giving them the skills they need to tackle tough questions, we are preparing our students for their futures.

 

Image courtsey of the New Literacies Collaborative: http://newlit.org/project-based-inquiry-3/

 

References:

Appiah, K. A. (2006). Cosmopolitanism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Hansen, D. T. (2010). Cosmopolitanism and education: A view from the ground. Teachers College
Record
, 112(1), 1-30.

 

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