Big Questions and the Power of Storytelling


Two truths about teaching:

1. Questions don’t work too well unless students are in the mood for them.

2. Nothing sets a mood like a good story.

Two truths about stories: 

1. They captivate the imagination.

2. They create healthy soil on which to grow Big Questions.

Here is what the dynamic between stories and questions looks like coming out of a unit on the Civil War and into a unit on Reconstruction.

We begin with this fictitious story I created about the break-up of a family. The story doubles as metaphorical commentary on the events leading up to the Civil War.

There once was a house and in this house lived a father and two sons. The mother, a strong and controlling woman, died a long time ago. The two sons, separated by just a few years, have never really gotten along. Arguments arise because the younger son always wants independence from the household. He never comes in on time, doesn’t listen to his father, hates his brother and is always threatening to run away.  The older son has always tried to keep his brother in line with the rules.  In the past, when the two sons argued, a compromise was always worked out. But recently, the arguments have increased to a dangerous point and the younger son is now very serious about leaving the family. Father is worried because, above all else, he wants to keep the family together. He asks his older son to find a solution. He makes it clear to his older son that if a little force is necessary to control the younger son, then it is okay to use it.

Then, a vicious fight breaks out between the two sons. The father hears his sons fighting from his room upstairs but does nothing to stop it, for he realizes that maybe dead-confederate-soldiers-at-hagerstown-pike-battle-of-antietam-civil-war_a-l-7118103-4990176the fight is necessary to end the conflict. If they don’t get out their anger now, father thinks, the arguing will just continue.

The fight last a long time and both sons hurt each other very badly.  The father hates to see his sons hurt, but refuses to stop the fight. Eventually the older brother overcomes his younger brother. The older son stands over his brother with a look of anger and victory.

The father comes downstairs and approaches his two sons, happy that the fight is over but realizing that serious work must be done to keep the family together. He loves his younger son dearly and doesn’t want him to be bitter about losing. He is relieved his older son won but is afraid that he will become too cocky and rub his victory in.

The father knows that he must show both sons that what is important is not who won the fight but that the family stays together. He decides to wait a week before he decides what to do.

A week later, the father hands out a piece of paper detailing his plans for punishing the younger son in a way that will accomplish a seemingly impossible task: keeping the family together.

Together we consider:  What should the father write on the piece of paper? Students get 5 minutes to brainstorm individually, then share responses in groups of three, then discuss as a class.

The discussion is always fascinating on so many levels. You’ll hear student insights on how punishment works in their own families (insights which can be terrifying actually!)  You’ll tap into deeply philosophical issues of the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to treat others and explore the negative and positive consequences that flow from treating people certain ways.  You’ll talk about blame and personal responsibility. Students really get emotionally and intellectually invested in this discussion. I set aside an entire period at least.

To this point the lesson hasn’t been about US history at all.

It’s been about adolescent theories of punishment.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Big Question arrives: What is a fair punishment for the South after the Civil War?


Ambiguity, unclear definitions and multiple perspectives. This question meets the criteria beautifully.

We make the historical connection by exploring the events of Reconstruction with a specific focus on the plans offered by seminal figures of the time–Lincoln, Johnson and the Radical Republicans. Students revisit the question repeatedly to assess the fairness of each of the plans and see if their recommendations for the South were in any way consistent with their recommendations for the younger son profiled in the story.

So think about what has happened here. Students read a story, which lured them into a personal discussion on punishment, which in turn gave birth to a question about how to treat the South after the Civil War. The story set the mood; the question anchored their understanding of the history of Reconstruction; and their passion and curiosity took over from there.

I know. It sounds like learning is moving so slowly and there’s so much work to get to a good question!  Yes, but the investment of time will pay huge dividends in the form of the enriching discussion and deep, meaningful learning.

Do you use stories in your classroom to introduce questions?  If so, how do you use them?  Share a comment!

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If you’re looking to do some Big Questions lesson planning this summer, consider this online course offered by the National Council for the Social Studies in collaboration Quincy University titled Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America.

In the course you design your own Big Questions and construct lessons which use the questions to teach about content relevant to your subject area (US history, government, sociology, psychology and world history).

I am excited to be one of the instructors for this course.

Share with others!




Want to ask BIGGER questions this summer? Check out these resources…



Summer:  the perfect time to slow down and cultivate the skill of asking questions.

Here are some professional development resources and opportunities which can take your skill to the next level.

1. An online course:  Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America

DF_Socrates Battle Image

America is deeply divided on so many levels. Now more than ever we need big questions to explore these divisions and encourage our students to take action to improve society.

Play the role of Socrates and…

  • Design four Big Questions
  • Apply disciplinary tools to analyze those questions;
  • Evaluate and select sources relevant to the questions;
  • Craft four lessons to engage students in open dialogue to understand and take informed action when differences may arise.
  • Reflect upon the value of teacher/student questions and the challenges and possibilities of students taking informed action to improve society.  Learn More

I am excited to work with NCSS and Quincy University to serve as one of the instructors for this course!both


QFT22. A conference:  Right Questions Institute summer events in the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).

This simple and powerful strategy shows teachers how to get students to ask their own questions.

Here is a great article from ASCD on the nuts and bolts of the QFT technique. Also consider joining RQI’s Educator Network

I will be one of the presenters at the Chicago conference on June 28th.



3. A Workshop:

Civic education workshops are being held all over Illinois to help teachers meet the new Illinois civics requirements and social studies standards. In these workshops teachers will receive a whole host of FREE resources including strategies for how to craft and use compelling questions in the context of lesson planning.

Here are a list of workshops from June to August.


4. Webinars and Workshops from NCSSNCSSworkshops

Southeast IDM Workshop

The Southeast IDM™ Summer Institute will be at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, June 5-6, 2018.

Sponsored by C3 Teachers and National Council for the Social Studies, the Southeastern IDM Institute will feature hands-on opportunities for teachers to develop inquiry materials for use in their classrooms and to join a larger community of educators who share an interest in invigorating their classrooms through inquiry-based teaching and learning. ( Text from )

5. A few good books:MoreBeautifulQuestion

A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

In this groundbreaking book, journalist and innovation expert Warren Berger shows that one of the most powerful forces for igniting change in business and in our daily lives is a simple, under-appreciated tool–one that has been available to us since childhood. Questioningdeeply, imaginatively, “beautifully”–can help us identify and solve problems, come up with game-changing ideas, and pursue fresh opportunities. So why are we often reluctant to ask “Why?” (From


Make Just One Change– Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana

This book introduces the QFT strategy mentioned above and describes in detail how to use it successfully. It is a quick and meaningful read.



The 60-Second Philosopher, by Andrew Pessin


Offered in 60 bite-sized chapters, this book provokes, cajoles and entices students into considering deep, philosophical questions.

I profiled the 60-Second Philosopher in a previous post.






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Fishing with Philosophy: Setting the Hook for Student Learning


I love fishing. It’s a chance to relax, be in nature and enjoy a little peace and serenity. The best part, though, is the excitement of setting the hook on a really big fish. That’s the beginning of an enjoyable struggle whose outcome is always uncertain.

Usually the hardest part is setting the hook just right.

In teaching we often feel like we are fishing without a hook, trying every strategy we can to get kids excited, asking questions and taking learning seriously. Despite our noble efforts, we fall short many times.  It’s usually not that our lesson was poorly conceived as a whole; it’s that we never got started in the right direction and so things just sort of… fizzled out.

If we can’t set the hook, especially in a class driven by Big Questions, then students quickly lose interest and usually we can’t get them back.

So what is the best way to set that hook?

Bring in a little philosophy.

One of my most reliable (and fun) tools is Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher, which I’ve been using for many years now as a textbook in my philosophy class and a supplemental resource in government classes. This gem of a book (which can literally fit in your pocket) provokes, cajoles and entices students into considering deep, philosophical ideas in 60 bite-sized chapters. Some of the chapters carry questions that have vexed humans for a long, long time:

What is the right thing to do?  How do I know it?

Who am I?

Is happiness the purpose of human life?

These questions are the province of philosophy but you can find a home for them in any of your classes. Philosophy is that perfect hook. Its questions rattle the soul of teenagers and stretch across all subject areas in a way that makes learning fun, unsettling and relevant at the same time.

Here are two chapters “Do the Right Thing” and “Santa and Scrooge”RightThingToDo

Do the Right Thing” prods us to consider why we make the moral judgments we do. We often assume we are doing the right thing but never question what grounds we have for making that claim. This chapter forces students to uncover this slip of reasoning. As you read it, imagine using it to set the hook in a US history class before exploring and evaluating the moral decisions Abraham Lincoln made during the Civil War.

In “Santa and Scrooge” we are asked to consider whether being naturally good by giving things away freely (Santa) is morally superior to becoming good after overcoming the badness of our character (Scrooge). Imagine using this one right at the beginning of a unit on the presidency to get students thinking about how doing the right thing sometimes means that you must choose to follow reason over what you feel.

Here is the procedure I use with the book:

  1. Pick a reader and have him/her read the chapter out loud to class. (by the way, it is astounding how reading out loud has become a lost art– be prepared to teach students how to read out loud as the chapters don’t work as well unless students are in tune with the pronunciations of certain words.)
  2. Pick two students to react to the reading. A reaction could be to ask a question, make a comment, state a confusion, or simple ‘pass’ to somebody else.
  3. Leave two full minutes of silence after the read-a-loud for the reactors to process their thoughts.
  4. Let the discussion ride!  Warning — it is very difficult to predict how discussions from this book will evolve. You must be ready to adapt on your feet.

Previous posts have showcased lessons which integrate a chapter from the 60-Second Philosopher. Check them out so you can see how the book is used in the context of a lesson:

Can Intolerance be a Virtue? Huh?

Is America the Land of Opportunity?

Just for fun, I dug up an old clip of a student of mine talking about the benefits of this book. (I was thinking that interviewing students about the textbook would be a good recruiting tool to get more students into the class. It worked! I asked them “What do you like about the 60-Second Philosopher?”)

We need innovative tools to create a class atmosphere conducive to wonder and curiosity. The ageless wisdom of philosophy hiding inside this little book can do just that.

Don’t forget some of the other philosophy resources shared in a previous post.

If you end up using the book, let me know. I’d love to organize a Twitter chat on it assuming there is enough interest.

What books do you use to inspire questions?

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“I think, therefore I’m right,” says the Student.


“I think, therefore I’m right.” Whether it’s defending a position on gun control, angling for a better grade in class or arguing about musical tastes in the lunchroom, many students tend to think that thinking about and believing in something are sufficient grounds for the truth of that something. Often, adults are no better. The whole idea of actually having strong reasons behind beliefs is noble in the abstract but requires mountains of patience and work to actually put into action. Thus, when faced with the agonizing choice, many of us stick to our hard and fast opinions rather than embrace the grueling work to justify those opinions with careful reasoning.

But opinions without reasoning don’t get us very far when we are answering Big Questions, nor do they get us very far in life for that matter. So if we are going to be successful in both realms, we need some strategies.

There’s a strategy I’ve used for a few years now which forces students to think about (and hopefully appreciate) the wisdom of having reasons behind claims. It’s called, appropriately enough, “I think, therefore I’m right” (Unfortunately, I lost the article which outlines this strategy. When I find it, I’ll add the reference here.)

What you need:

  • Thirty or so unique knowledge statements ranging from the obvious to the nebulous. Put them on small slips of paper and laminate them if you can for continued use. Consider your subject area when you make your statements, although keep in mind that what the statements say is less important as to whether or not they provoke judgments from the students about whether the statements are reasonable or unreasonable.  (The picture above shows a sampling of statements I use in my philosophy class– Full List Here . )
  • Masking tape


  1. Make groups of 3
  2. Hand out 3-4  of the statements to each group. Tell group to discuss whether or not each statement is reasonable or unreasonable.REASONABLE
  3. On the board write “Reasonable” and “Unreasonable” and a line running underneath it with arrows in opposite directions.
  4. Tell each group to pick one statement and a student representative who, once the discussion is over, will come up to the front of the class and tape the statement onto the reasonable-unreasonable continuum in a position which best reflects his/her group’s opinion of the statement. The representative will have to provide a reason behind the opinion.

This is where it gets fun…


After the student comes up and puts the statement on the board, play Socrates and ask “Why did you place it there?” Let the student report out on the reason. Keep pressing. Whatever reason he/she gives, demand that he/she share better and better justifications for the claim. Here is how it might play out with what seemed to be an obvious statement The Sky is Blue.


Teacher: why did you place it on the reasonable side?

Student: “because I’ve seen the sky on a clear day and it’s blue”

Teacher: “what about on a cloudy day?  Is it still blue?”

Student: “well, no, it’s gray.”

Teacher: ¨so then it isn’t really blue, is it?  Well what about somebody who is color blind. Is the sky blue to him?¨

Student: ¨I guess not¨

Teacher: ¨…so the color of the sky is subjective and depends on the person.¨

If  ¨The Sky is Blue¨ generates discussion, just imagine what will happen when students start discussing the statements like ¨Lying is always wrong,”  or ¨It is wrong to impose the death penalty.¨ It is so much fun!  Coax others to play Socrates and challenge other students’ beliefs too. This activity will probably spill into the next day.

Take a step back here and be careful what you are communicating…

You aren’t suggesting that there is no truth in the world.  You are affirming that strong beliefs are not enough to get to truth.  We need good reasons to support our thinking about all matters, big and small.

Strategies like this- combined with others like the 4-Sentence Paper— heighten student capacity to defend their claims, a skill which is essential to have when grappling with Big Questions.

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Sschat Debrief: Educators Speak Out On Big Questions- Part II


This post extends last week’s debrief of ideas from the sschat “Teaching Teachers and Students to Ask Big Questions,” held on April 2, 2018.  Short commentary follows each comment with links to past blog posts relevant to the idea shared.

Thanks again to all who participated!  The next chat is  Creating Podcasts with Your Students #sschat  April 9, 2018 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm  Hosted by @listenwiselearn

Jason taps into a core truth of questions which is that the learning embedded inside question-asking is very hard to quantify. This fact causes anxiety for some teachers who work under systems which require quantifiable data of learning tasks. Data collection frustration is one of the inevitable costs of teaching with questions.

A seemingly impossible teaching challenge is to persuade students of the value of holding two opposing arguments in mind, while at the same time honoring each argument on its own terms– and then having patience and courage to choose the strongest one. This takes confidence and certitude. Big Questions force students and teachers to practice this task of argument-making in a meaningful way over time. One tool I’ve found that is really helpful here is the “4-Sentence Paper technique“. This simple technique expands student capacity to handle multiple perspectives and imbues them with confidence to take a stand.

I’ve been thinking about Andrew’s comment all week, actually. I didn’t want to believe what he said is right but it is. Some students just want to view social studies as a memorization game of disparate facts and dates. If that is true, then it is incumbent upon us as teachers to take great care to communicate early the importance of questions driving the learning process. The most dramatic way to communicate this value would be to organize an entire course by Big Questions. Short of that, though, we can be more intentional about using questions to guide our units and individual lessons. The brutal reality is that not all students will take to this questions approach. Despite our efforts, the psychological benefits of comfort and certainty which come with definitive answers are just too strong of a force for some students who turn away from critical thinking. At the very least, though, we will have strategically planted some seeds of doubt for future contemplation.

Katie’s response to the question “Can questions be assessed?” is insightful and comforting. We’ve come to assume that virtually everything in education must be measured and assessed somehow, yet as Katie suggests it really depends on what our purposes are. If students are asking questions to move a discussion along, then there’s no need to obsess over measuring their every move. In fact– as we’ve all experienced– sometimes fixating on assessment of learning causes us to miss present experiences because we’re too busy writing down what happened in the past!

Thanks again to all who contributed to this conversation. Check out the archives here.

The next chat is  Creating Podcasts with Your Students #sschat  April 9, 2018 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm  Hosted by @listenwiselearn


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Sschat Debrief (April 2, 2018): Educators Speak Out On Big Questions– Part I


On Monday, April 2nd the sschat community discussed the importance of teachers and students asking questions to guide instruction and learning. Since so many great ideas were shared, it seemed fitting to slow down and debrief some of the ideas in more depth, and acknowledge people in the process. The list below is just a small sampling of tweets yet it paints an authentic portrait of the types of conversations which unfolded.

I’ve also provided some of my own commentary with links to previous blog posts which expand upon the idea in a meaningful way.

Thanks to all who participated!  More coming soon.

Michael reveals an important truth about an inquiry-based classroom:  it builds character in teachers and students while at the same time making content more meaningful. Big Questions classrooms cultivate virtue.

Chris is spot on here. Questions– presented in the right way at the right time– inspire students and teachers to appreciate complex thinking and turn away from associating learning with memorization. In an earlier post I wrote about how teachers and students could learn and appreciate the motivational value of questions from– of all people– the Marines.

Several of the posts on this blog profile lessons created by teachers who have found success with children’s books showcased on this website. Here are just a few of the posts and the children’s book to which each post relates.

1.  Swimmy by Leo Lionni:  How do you know the Abolitionists were brave?

2. Araboolies of Liberty Street by Sam Swope:  How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?

3. If you give a mouse a cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff:  Is history guided by free will or determinism?

4. Flowers from Mariko by Rick Noguchi and Deneen Jenks: How does the government protect its people during war, yet still preserve civil liberties?

5. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch:  How do gender roles define people?

6. Part I- The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein: Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?

7. Part II- The Giving Tree

Dwight and Mrs. Devlin tap into a subtle, yet extremely important truth about putting questions at the centerpiece of your instruction– and that is that they act as a filter for your content and work to bound disparate ideas into a coherent whole over time. Being ‘intentional’- as Mrs Devlin put it- is key to make it work. Imagine structuring an entire course on Big Questions and achieving these purposes creatively along the way.

Elyse provides a simple yet powerful metaphor for the indispensable role questions can play in instruction. Maybe we make teaching harder than it needs to be when we start students off with specific content details and then try to encourage students to make big-picture sense out of those details, as opposed to starting with a big picture understanding and then fitting in details inside that understanding (which is what starting with Big Questions allows you to do). Teaching is hard enough. Maybe we make it harder than we have to.

Mary Ellen Daneels shared this famous Einstein quote to remind us that much of the valuable work in our classrooms should be thinking about the right questions to ask, not rushing off to fashion answers before we’ve thought through what it is we want to learn. Reconfiguring our priorities in this way necessitates that we cultivate the virtue of patience and slow down our instruction.

Stay tuned for more next week!

Here is an archive of the chat.

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Government and the Giving Tree– Part II: the Big Question comes of age


Last week I wrote about how the famous story The Giving Tree inspired this Big Question.

Here’s how I used it in a regular level government class:

I started by playing a read-aloud of the story. Then the students– working in groups of two or three– came up with three takeaways from the story, which was then followed by an open-ended discussion. There was nothing I told them specifically to look for since at this point I just wanted them to be interested in the story. The read-along was around nine minutes and the group work plus discussion of the takeaways around 20 minutes.

From there as a class we considered the idea of help and generosity. We ruminated together:  “What qualifies as help? In what way is encouraging somebody else to do something ‘help’? If a person asks for help, does that mean they are needy and undeserving of it? When is too much help damaging to a person?” Students will ask other questions as well. The key here is to meander into topics beyond government, like the help students give to each other, or the help their parents provide them, or their coaches. Here is a wonderful opportunity to explore their personal lives in a safe way to enrich discussion.

These opening activities often fill an entire period. If you think this lesson is moving very slowly, you would be right! I’ve found that with this particular inquiry (and most Big Question inquiries for that matter), slowing down is precisely the right approach because it allows you and the students to make an intellectual and emotional investment into the theme in a meaningful way.  Rushing through Big Questions generates stress and leaves students disoriented.

On the the next day I hand out this:


Students complete the survey and we then consider different example policies from the survey where government helped people in some way, whether it be providing welfare or protecting groups from discrimination, or making sure people have affordable health care. After each example, we ask “Is this an appropriate role of government? If so, why? If not, why not?”

Near the end of the period, the Big Question is rolled out:  Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?  Students sometimes fill out an exit slip with a preliminary answer; other times, students give a few responses and we just let the question sit, maybe write it up on the board as a reminder. For the rest of this unit on political ideology and political parties, the question becomes a fixture in our minds and is revisited multiple times. (We’ve seen this recursive function of questions at work in earlier posts: Can War Be Glorious? and To Intervene or not to Intervene. )

Consider what has happened. We have spent two full days thinking, questioning and discussing, together. Teacher and student are valued participants in the inquiry and the virtues of perseverance, patience and curiosity take center stage, all of which are signposts of a human-centered classroom. Very little static content has been learned which isn’t to say that content is not important. I’m preparing them to learn content inside the world of an interesting question.

Investments of time, though, don’t come without costs– especially inside an AP class where there is a more rigid schedule. Thus, a fair question to be asked is–What are the overriding benefits of using the Big Question approach that justify the costs?

One answer is this:  Now you have a clear vision for your teaching, a vision that you AND the students can rally around that provides enough structure to bind ideas together and enough flexibility to foster independent thought. Further, there’s a good chance that the investment you made discussing students’ personal experiences will engender more curiosity moving forward.

Okay, sounds great but are Big Questions really worth it?  In the next post we’ll explore this question in greater detail and get a better grip of the sacrifices needed to make it work.


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