Was the Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu onto something? John Kennedy thought so.
A few weeks ago I shared a Three-Step routine used to design essential questions and create great memorable conversations in class.
Here’s another example of how you might follow this process in a unit on the Cold War in US history.
Step One: Select
Pick a theme, primary source and a philosopher quote aligned to the theme.
You’re teaching the Cold War and you think your students would be interested in the theme of fighting— when to do it and how to do it to make sure you achieve maximum benefit. Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech is your target primary source because it demonstrates the value of using words, not violence, to solve problems.
Ancient philosopher Sun Tzu has a provocative angle on this theme: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”
Step Two: Dissect
Now pick apart Sun Tzu’s quote. Find the claim being made and then articulate the counterclaims which assert competing perspectives.
Claim: The best way to deal with your enemies is by not fighting them.
Example Counterclaim: Attacking your enemy– trying to overwhelm him– is the best path towards victory.
Have a silent conversation with yourself over the different ways you and your students may view this quote…It might sound like this: It seems very counter-intuitive to claim that you can actually win over your enemies without fighting. Surely many students are under the impression that direct confrontation with others is the only way to win. Sun Tzu is offering a different perspective here, one that must somehow incorporate other means of getting your way.
Step Three: Connect
After exploring the claims and counterclaims of the philosopher quote, slow down and think back to the primary source– Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech. Think of a Big Question that draws out the theme.
Here’s one: Is fighting the best way to get what you want?
Is it accessible? Can students understand the question easily? Does it make them want to share personal experiences? √
Is it provocative? Does the question force students to take a stand on something and provide evidence to support their position? √
Is it complex? Can the question be answered by multiple perspectives? √
Is it transferable? Can the question be re-purposed to apply to different contexts? √
This question pulls students into an interesting conversation about the value of fighting and violence as a solution to problems.
To implement this lesson, post the quote on the board and engage the students’ ideas on fighting. What you are doing is preparing the soil for the introduction of your primary source.
Now, introduce the Big Question as you share Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech. With the Big Question and Sun Tzu quote in hand, students have the tools to explore the historical importance of Kennedy’s decision and connect all of it to their own personal experiences.
I’m excited to teach this 3-Step process in an online graduate course titled “Teach Different with Essential Questions.” Teachers follow the process and make three original lessons aligned to what they already teach. It’s a great way to bring a little philosophy into your teaching life!