Answering Big Questions = Critical Thinking on Steroids

think-622689_1920

Big Questions are great tools to organize courses and units. Regardless of how we end up using them, sooner or later reality demands that students find some answers!  And here’s where the real work begins.

Consider the challenge this way:  to answer a Big Question well students must not only remember what they have learned, but they must connect that learning with the question in a way that shows deep understanding and an ability to construct an argument to solve an intellectual problem. Sounds like critical thinking on steroids.

Here are a few example responses from a student in my AP government class. (Wait! Disclaimer!  “Yes” this is an exceptional example and “No” most of my students aren’t able to think this clearly and write this well!). But disclaimer aside, the responses here can help us get a clearer picture of what we are looking for.

Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?

Connection to our Campaigns and Elections unit…

Student Response:  The Electoral College may be an effective argument for the fact that popular sovereignty may be an illusion. One may look to the 2016 election. In order to win the presidential election, one must win a certain number of electors, who cast their votePeoplePower in favor for that candidate depending on the popular vote of the state. Although Donald Trump may have won the Electoral Vote, Clinton won the popular vote by a few million, bolstered by the strong support in states such as California, Illinois, and New York. Since candidate Clinton lost the presidential election, despite winning the popular vote by a significant margin, one might consider that popular sovereignty might be more of an illusion, or at least convoluted, than what our people like to say. Or others might argue that the electoral college is a form of popular votes by the states, as the candidate needs to appeal to a wide range of voters in order to succeed.

Connection to our Judiciary unit…

Student Response:  The appointment of judges is somewhat contrary to popular sovereignty. A president must nominate a judge, and that nominee must pass a majority of the senate. WhileThe Roberts Court, 2017 the public might be able to mail their senators and try to sway their vote, the will of the people has a diminished effect on this process. In addition, only impeachment, death, or retirement can bring these judges out of office; the populace can’t vote them out. One might argue that popular sovereignty has no effect in this regard because of these listed reasons. Yet this appears to be intentional by the Framers. If judges could be elected, they would interpret the law according to the people’s will to stay in office, rather than what they would regard as the truth. Although it is an illusion, perhaps it is better that way in this instance.

Notice:

  1. The content of the course is still important but now it’s being used to serve a larger purpose (answering a provocative question).
  2. Valuable skills are in full force- analyzing, connecting and making arguments.
  3. Learning is expressed across units, instead of being confined within them.
  4. It’s actually more interesting to read because the teacher is getting an insight into what concepts stuck during instruction. This is valuable feedback.

This student has demonstrated a deep understanding of the popular sovereignty theme. For other students who may have missed these connections, it’s not the end of the game. There will be several other opportunities in subsequent units to revisit the theme in a new setting, and that provides a fresh opportunity to make a connection. Herein lies the beauty of Big Questions: they provide a recursive learning experience. If you don’t get it the first time, try, try again!

Government teachers: Can you think of any other areas of government content which could connect to this Big Question?  Or how about other government big questions from a previous post.?

Attention Government Teachers! Is there a Big Question YOU would add to this list?

Building Congress Government Dome Capitol Capital

Here’s what I have so far…

  1. Does our system of government succeed or fail in preventing the abuse of power?  

  2.  Do interest groups frustrate or promote democratic ideals?

  3. Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?

  4. Are the media and political elites a corrupt or wholesome influence on our system of government?

  5.  Do political parties improve or impair the ability of Congress and the executive branch to function according to the Framers intent?

  6. Have the Court’s interpretation of the due process and equal protection clauses violated or honored the rule of law?

  7. Is federalism an impediment to or a pathway towards effective public policy?

 

Here’s how I am using these…

  • At the beginning of the year each student received a document with these seven questions
  • As we move through the different units, we stop to integrate the content we are learning with one or more of these questions. This unit we are examining federalism and the role of the 14 Amendment, and so we are looking through questions 1, 6 and 7.
  • At the end of the year students join together in small groups, select one of the questions,  develop a thesis and present a argument using all of what they have learned in the course.

This is the very similar to the approach I used in US history.

Is there a Big Question YOU would add to this list?  Reply on Twitter with your favorite question!   @dmfouts

question-mark-2525248_960_720

 

Women’s history Big Question: How do gender roles define people?

Stereotypes_and_Gender_Roles

Last week we saw how Big Questions can organize an entire US history course.

This week we see how one can begin a unit on the Women’s Movement and inspire  students to become more thoughtful about how gender roles affect human identity and relationships. In light of the recent revelations of sexual harassment and gender bias in the workplace, there is perhaps no more important theme to explore.

US history teacher and Socrates in the Social Studies student Melissa Kinsey poses the question:

How do gender roles define people?

Susan_B._Anthony_G.E._Perine
Susan B. Anthony

In the lead up, Melissa organizes her class in gender groups and plays The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. After the video students complete a   Stereotype-t-chart on which they identify stereotypes introduced in the book and stereotypes which exist today.  Students add to the chart after watching  I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl! and  Labels Against Women.

After class discussion, she shows a graphic  of how her unit will be organized with the Big Question placed right in the middle for emphasis.  On an exit slip students write out an initial response to the Big Question using what they have learned in this opening lesson.  Then, as the unit progresses, students revisit the very same Big Question (and the supporting ones) to build even more sophisticated understandings of how gender roles have come to define women and men throughout American history.

Most impressive here is the fact that Melissa has set up a recursive learning experience where students will gain deep understanding through repeated exposure to the same Big Question.

Can you think of a Big Question that could be used to teach Women’s history?

 

PaperBagPrincess

Download Full Lesson

 

 

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.

Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old (and counting…)

appeasementFrom Socrates forward, we’ve asked:

Does everything happen for a reason?

Am I really in control of my actions?

Would I have turned out differently had I been born at a different time under different circumstances?

Underneath all of these big questions lurks an even bigger one:  Is my life guided by free will or determinism?  Open to interpretation and filled with murky definitions– this question has everything.

What makes the question so vexing is that it pits our common sense against our logic. It seems obvious that we have the freedom to act. But then, when we rewind our decisions and really think, it seems like every action we take is determined by the action taken just before it. Our logic tells us there is no way it could have happened any other way.

High school history teacher and Socrates in the Social Studies student Justin Riskus provokes this thousands-year-old Big Question to teach World War II. He begins in an unorthodox way by showing If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff.

Cookie

The narrator intones “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk.” Once that action occurs, the mouse must ask for a straw and then a napkin etc… Each action the mouse takes seems completely determined by the action taken just before. At the end, in a twist of irony, the mouse asks for a glass of milk and then a cookie to go with it, and we are back where we started.

Justin uses this story to stoke student interest in the Allies’ appeasement policy towards Hitler leadingBad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung up to WWII.  There too we see a seemingly endless string of determined events, piling up on each other leading to one of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen.  A voice in our head asks “Was World War II determined to happen?” Justin cleverly uses the behavior of a mouse to inspire students to call into question whether history itself is caught in the iron grip of determinism or whether leaders have the free will to break history’s chain of events.

Employing a Socratic Seminar, Justin then coaxes students to consider the moral responsibility of modern day presidents.

“Should American presidents take the lesson of  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie to heart?”

Justin has drawn out an age-old philosophical question and looked at it with fresh eyes. In doing so, his students  are inspired to think about the choices humans must make in the service of preventing evil.

Download Full Lesson Here

Can Big Questions motivate Students? Ask the Marines

Rules

When I first came across this video from the online knowledge forum Big Think, I really didn’t know what to expect.  Looking at the subtitle “Start Breaking Some Rules” I was a little apprehensive since I’ve always thought encouraging adolescents to break rules is equivalent to a classroom death sentence. My intrigue overcame suspicion and I watched it anyway.

Wow, I’m glad I did.

In the video we learn of the ‘crucible’, a high-pressure 56-hour obstacle course given to marines during boot camp in which they are placed in physically and mentally grueling situations. In one situation recruits are in a sand pit having to move ropes and logs. They are told to wait for orders from their superiors before doing anything.  But because they and their superiors are wearing gas masks, recruits are rendered powerless to hear and follow the commands of their officers.  They quickly realize they must devise their own path of action relying only on their instinctive judgments. The goal of this training is to cultivate what the trainers call an “internal locus of control,” whereby the marine is motivated to act without direction from others.

This is counterintuitive to me.

I had always assumed that marines are motivated by being told what to do and following orders.  But here recruits are taught to resist the impulse to follow orders.  The underlying psychology here is fascinating: when people are put in positions to break from traditional patterns of thinking, their engines of self-motivation kick into gear and they learn to act with independence and confidence, skills- which for a soldier are indispensable in the chaotic and unpredictable world of warfare.

It got me thinking. How could I translate this lesson on self-motivation into my own classroom with my students?

question-mark-2492009_1920

Well, I don’t have obstacle courses.

But I can ask Big Questions.

Big Questions reveal different perspectives and welcome confusion over a topic. This confusion disrupts thinking and necessitates that students assume the responsibility of crafting their own path to find answers. In this way, like the marines, the students are inspired to cultivate an internal locus of control, which is the seed of self-motivation.

Here’s how this might play out in a government class with the Big Question:  “Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?”  No clear answer here. The students must design their own thinking rules for how to answer it and each student has some important decisions to make:

Should I focus on interest groups or leave them out?

Should I focus my analysis on Congress, the presidency or the courts, or maybe a little bit of each?

Should I limit my analysis to the branches of government or expand the analysis to include how people participate through protest?

Now think back to the Big Questions from previous posts and consider how they might similarly encourage independent decision-making.
Can intolerance be a virtue?
How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?
Is America the Land of Opportunity?

Ultimately, we know what the students will do with Big Questions, at least initially.  Ask the teacher!  But here is where as teachers we must resist giving them orders on how to think about the question. The more we do that, the more students become dependent on us and the less they rely on their own instincts. Yes, the students are in for a struggle to be sure, but like the marines they will emerge from these classroom crucibles with heightened capacities for self-motivation and renewed courage to think for themselves. These skills have inestimable value.

What Big Questions do you think would best inspire students to develop an “internal locus of control”?

 

Teachers: We can’t be perfect, and we shouldn’t try to be

ISH

Perfection is a danger. Just ask Benjamin Franklin

As teachers we know all too well the feeling of ending a class, week or year with feelings of inadequacy about not doing enough for our students. It’s like there is this voice in the sky reminding us of the standards we failed to meet, the paperwork left incomplete and the lives we were powerless to impact. We know in theory that avoiding mistakes should always be our goal but then feel that striving for perfection often comes at a significant cost to our well being.

Students suffer the same malady in the form of homework, parental and coach expectations, test scores and college decisions. The pressure to be perfect comes from all angles. They get stressed out and we the teachers often end up being the recipients of their angst and frustrations.

Social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg drew upon this basic truth of human psychology to construct a lesson featuring somebody who was able to overcome the need for perfection under the toughest of circumstances: Benjamin Franklin.

She begins with the Big Question:

What makes something perfect?

So simple yet so profound, and it meets all three of our criteria.

After gathering students’ responses, she shows the story “Ish” by Peter H. Reynolds

Students then reflect:

Was there ever something you stopped doing because you were not doing it perfectly?

Can art be perfect?  Who decides this?

What does it mean that Ramon’s later paintings/art were “-ish”?

Having personalized a definition of perfection and considered their own personal experiences, students are prepped to make the historical connection. They read Benjamin Franklin’s closing speech to the Constitutional Convention  and shape responses to a series of questions including this one:   If Franklin knows that the Constitution is flawed, why does he still push for ratification?

After discussion, the lesson concludes with students articulating the key positions of the anti-federalists and federalists as they debate the pitfalls and possibilities of the new Constitution. Students then must decide whether or not they would ratify it given its imperfections.

What I love about this lesson is not only do students gain a comprehensive understanding of a seminal historical event but, more importantly, they are encouraged to consider on a personal level the virtue of imperfection.  Using Benjamin Franklin and the formation of the Constitution as a model, students and teachers learn that it is okay to turn away from perfection sometimes in the service of smart, responsible decision-making.

This lesson unearths a great benefit of Big Questions: it’s not just that these questions get us to think deeply; it’s that they move us to act in ways that make us better people.

( Chelsea Alsberg: Student summer 2017 Socrates in the Social Studies )

Download Full Lesson