Let’s imagine what a course with Big Questions might look like

classroom

Rewind back to August.

Imagine it’s the second day of school. You’re finished with the rules and procedures, seating charts and get-to-know-you activities. Standing in front of your students, you’re ready to set the tone and framework for the next nine months of instruction.

You pass out this note

Welcome!

The purpose of this course is to struggle with the The Big Questions of US history.

At first these questions will confuse you. They are filled with unclear definitions and open to many different interpretations and seem to have no clear answer.

Your job is to monitor these questions throughout the year and slowly craft sophisticated responses to them as we move through the different units of the course.

In June, your final exam will be to choose one of the Big Questions (which could be one that YOU created independently), develop a thesis statement, and answer it convincingly using the content learned in the course as your evidence.

There are a few exciting things going on here:

  1. You’ve established Big Questions to be the most important component of the curriculum. This tells students that asking them is valuable.
  2. You’ve set struggle as the expectation of the course. This is a subtle message that learning will be difficult but still worth pursuing. This is the growth mindset.
  3. You’ve honored the importance of skills while at the same time preserved the integrity of content.  And now you can discriminate your content based on whether or not it fits under one or more of the Big Questions.
  4. You’ve taught students that learning spans across units, instead of being confined within them.
  5. Students get ownership. They decide what content fits where; they determine how the content fits; they can even develop their own Big Question and track it throughout the year. In this way you have provided the context for student self-motivation.
  6. You’ve given students their final exam   on the second day of class! For the next nine months there is no confusion as to where the class is headed. This focuses you and the students like a laser on what is to be learned and why.

Admittedly,  it would be much more of a challenge to do this in an AP course with a rigid curriculum and content expectations. But even then you could have Big Questions in the backdrop and use them for enriching discussions.

Could YOU organize your course using Big Questions?  If so, what might it look like?  Share some examples of Big Questions you would use for your subject area.

Author: Dan Fouts

Since 1993 I've taught AP government, philosophy and US history in the Chicagoland area. I served as a member of the committee on pre-collegiate instruction in philosophy through the American Philosophical Association from 2012-2016 and am co-founder of the Living Library project, a professional development program through which teachers digitize and share artifacts of their best ideas. Additionally, I instruct an online course- Socrates in the Social Studies - which is designed to help middle/high school teachers integrate Big Questions into their classrooms.

2 thoughts on “Let’s imagine what a course with Big Questions might look like”

    1. What a great question! I think the answer lies within the ethical make-up of the story-teller. I like the question you ask here in that it is really a question teachers and students should ask themselves at the before, during and after a history class– because it calls on us to take an ethical position on the events and figures in history we think are important and which will, in turn, provide the framework for our answers. Thanks for sharing!

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