Was Columbus a hero?

At a glance

  • Category: History
  • Ages: 15-18
  • Suggested length: 4-6 class periods (45-55 minutes each) 
  • Device accessibility: 1 device per 1-2 students

In this lesson, students will explore a fully developed Kialo Edu discussion which examines the question, “was Christoper Columbus a hero?” The top-level pros examine his skill as an explorer as well as his contribution to European society. The top-level cons discuss the violence that he and his crew exacted against local populations, along with the impact that Columbus’ journeys had on later colonial projects.

Students will then split up into teams and stage a trial to judge Columbus’ heroism or villainy. Within their teams, students will assume various roles (attorneys, researchers, and witnesses) and use the Kialo Edu discussion to prepare arguments and questions for witnesses.

Students will be assessed as a team, based on the quality of the research and argumentation they provide in the trial.

Lesson information

Learning objectives

In this lesson, students will:

  • Practice forming independent arguments regarding the historical impact of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the Americas.
  • Develop a greater understanding of basic historiography and how individual historical sources can be biased in a variety of ways.

Prior knowledge

No specific prior knowledge is required for this lesson.

Teacher preparation

  • There is no need to clone this discussion. Students can explore the discussion hosted on the Kialo Edu account by clicking this link.
  • If you would like to invite students to the discussion using the “Share” button or the Teams feature, create 1 clone of the discussion for yourself.
  • When inviting students to the discussion, give them Viewer permissions.

Provided materials

  • The Kialo Edu discussion, “Was Columbus a hero?” This includes:
    • A brief background on the history and legacy of Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the Americas.
    • A list of suggested resources for students’ research.
    • A fully developed Kialo Edu discussion for students to explore. The discussion examines the historical legacy of Christopher Columbus.
  • Lesson plan for educators (downloadable in .docx / .pdf).
  • Instructions for students (downloadable in .docx / .pdf).
  • Suggested rubric for grading a mock trial (downloadable in .docx / .pdf).
  • Suggested rubric for grading a writing assignment (downloadable in .docx / .pdf).

Lesson plan

Suggested length: 4-6 class periods (45-55 minutes each)

Lesson components:

  • Opener (10-15 minutes)
  • Activity
    • Part A: Organizing the trial (focus of 1 class period)
    • Part B: Researching for the trial (focus of 1-2 class period)
    • Part C: Preparing for the trial (focus of 1-2 class periods)
    • Part D: Trial (focus of 1-2 class periods)
  • Optional closer (2 minutes)


  • Students will be assessed as a team, based on the quality of the research and argumentation they provide in the trial. 
  • If you opt to create a student jury, then these students can be assessed on a written composition, in which they state the reasons for their vote and how they might have argued any points differently than the students who directly participated in the trial. 
  • See suggested rubrics provided for both assessments


  • If there are “extra” students, you may opt to make a jury of non-speaking students who must come to a consensus on the verdict.

Opener (10-15 minutes)

  1. Mention the existing controversy surrounding Columbus. Conduct a brief discussion of students’ views and explain that students will conduct a mock trial on this topic.
  2. Ask students: How is our understanding of history affected by the perspectives of those who write history? If history is virtually always biased to some degree, how can we build accurate understandings of the past?
  3. Invite students to share their views with the class and identify a set of different arguments being made.


Part A: Organizing the trial (focus of 1 class period)

  1. Distribute student instructions and go over Part A with the class.
  2. Divide students into groups.
    • Each team will have at least 8 members. 
    • 1 member of each team will give the opening and closing statements, respectively. 
    • 3 members of each team will act as attorneys to examine their 3 witnesses. 

If you wish to add more witnesses, there should be one attorney on each team for every witness.

  1. Direct students to choose their roles within their teams.

Optional Extension (5-20 min.): Activate students’ knowledge by showing them the Zinn Education Project’s video on “The Columbus Controversy.” The video provides a good overview of the topic, but you can opt to only show the introduction.

Part B: Researching for trial (focus of 1-2 class period)

  1. Go over Part B of the student instructions with the class.
  2. Direct students to begin exploring the Kialo Edu discussion and performing further research. They can also find extra sources by clicking on the icon (in the top-left corner of the discussion) and finding the background info.

Part C: Preparing for the trial (focus of 1-2 class periods)

  1. Group students by team and role.
  2. Go over Part C of the student instructions.

TIP: You can decide to use a second class period for trial preparation if students need more time. By the end of this part, both teams should have opening speeches written and a set of clear questions to ask witnesses.

Optional extension (5 min.): To speed up the process on the day of the trial, have students also go over the diagram in Part A of the student instructions before the class period with the mock trial begins. You can do this at the end of the preparation phase.

Part D: Mock trial (focus of 1-2 class periods)

  1. Set up the classroom to resemble a courtroom: 

  1. Mock trial begins.

TIP: You can split the mock trial into two class periods if needed. A natural stopping point might be after both sides have finished their examinations of the prosecution’s witnesses.

  1. After the trial is done, the judge or jury comes to a verdict, explaining whose arguments have been most persuasive.

Optional differentiation: You can require the jury to have a 5 minute deliberation where they briefly discuss their views on the trial and decide which team argued their position most effectively. You can appoint a “jury foreman” to deliver the verdict.

Optional closer (5-10 minutes)

  1. Ask students: Is history really always written by the victors? Can we ever truly understand history without reading the perspectives of those who disagree with the dominant narrative? 
  2. Invite students to briefly explain how the controversy surrounding Columbus has affected their answers to these questions.

Related Kialo Edu discussion

Was Columbus a hero? kialo-edu.com