Category Archives: Big Questions Professional Development

Teaching with Big Questions is like learning in slow-motion

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Here’s something to think about after the Super Bowl.

We know why we like instant replay so much. We get to see reality in slow motion

to catch what we missed the first time. With instant replay we have the power to paint a more in-depth, accurate picture of what happened. With a clearer picture in mind, we gain a deeper understanding.

As teachers, we are interested in understanding too, but unlike football, we don’t get the benefit of replay. We must catch our mistakes the first time and make on-the-fly adjustments based on intuition and incomplete information. Thus, we’re always chasing certainty and our picture of reality is always fuzzy. Continue reading

“Teacher! Help!! I can’t answer the Big Question!”

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In Monday’s (1/22/18) sschat we discussed ideas for Embedding Writing into the Social Studies Curriculum. I shared an innovative tool called The 4-Sentence Paperwhich was created by Dennis Earl, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Coastal Carolina University. Among other purposes, the tool is designed to reduce student fear of writing argumentative papers. Over the last three years, I’ve used it a different way– to empower students to tackle Big Questions.

Big Questions are scary for students because they are confusing, involve multiple perspectives and often contain ambiguous definitions.  They get even scarier when students actually have to sit down to answer them.

Embedded within this beautifully simple tool is a smart assumption about student motivation:  students are more inspired to write and think when they have a limited task at the outset. That allows them to gain quick success and build confidence over time.

To see how the 4-Sentence Paper technique works, let’s use a Big Question from a previous post:

Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?

Let’s say that a student wanted to answer this question by playing around with the idea of the Supreme Court. Here’s how it might unfold:


They say the Supreme Court shows that popular sovereignty is an think-622689_1920illusion because judges serve for life terms and therefore can never be voted out of office. If they serve for life then there is no check on their opinions, thus taking power out of the hands of the people.

I say if judges abuse their power, they can be impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate, and may lose their job. Because the House of Representatives is elected directly by the people, popular sovereignty is preserved as a check against judicial abuse of power.

They might object that impeachment/conviction is such a rare occurrence that it doesn’t really represent a strong argument that the people are in control.

I reply that just the threat of impeachment/conviction is enough of a check on judicial behavior so that the vast majority of judges must make decisions in the public interest for fear of losing their job.


This is just one line of argument. More angles could be pursued.

Over time students will see that the world is filled with multiples perspectives of understanding.  Just imagine if you applied the 4-Sentence Paper over the course of an entire school year with the US history questions we saw in this post.

Students are also honing the skill of argumentation. And as students take a step back, reflect and think deeply, they gain valuable practice demonstrating the core virtues of citizenship:  patience, perseverance, humility, confidence and curiosity. These are exactly the kinds of virtues so desperately needed to improve our public discussions.

Here are a few specific ways you could use this 4-Sentence paper strategy with your students in conjunction with Big Questions:

  1. Prepare arguments for a larger research paper
  2. Prepare arguments for a class discussion on a controversial topic
  3. Construct an exit or entrance slip to review a lesson which incorporated a Big Question

With tools like the 4-Sentence Paper, you can harness the power of Big Questions to transform student fear into courageous, philosophical thinking– and nurture great citizens in the process.

(Dennis Earl’s article describing the tool can be found here.)

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If you want to learn how to make and use essential questions, check out this cartoon and sign up to get some cool Think Alouds showing you how to do it.

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Let Big Questions Drive Your Human-Centered Classroom.

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How many times have you heard or felt that your classroom should be more “student-centered?”

I’ve lost count.

I know, I know. We are supposed to say “student-centered” and then we’re supposed to follow that up quickly and say that “teacher-centered” classrooms are a relic of the past and don’t meet the needs of the modern learner.

Here’s where we need to just stop, smile, step back and gain some perspective:

Teachers want students to feel a sense of agency over what they are learning; they want student interest to drive the curriculum. They want every student to feel that his/her needs are met at every point in the learning process. These are ideals to which all classrooms should aspire. Sometimes teachers fail; sometimes they succeed. It’s a work in progress.

But there are other things teachers want.

They want to bring their interests and passions into the classroom; they want to feel some sense of ownership over what is taught. They want these things not because they want to marginalize student interests but because they want to experience the joy of learning with their students– and the only way to do that is to feel as though they are meaningful contributors. After all, teachers really are just students too, only a little older, and therefore are uniquely situated to bring value to the classroom experience.

So since teachers and students want such similar and interconnected things, maybe we should stop making artificial distinctions and make a good faith attempt to promote Human-Centered Classrooms in which all people’s needs are met, all of the time.


The good news is that a Big Questions classroom already does this.

In a Big Questions classroom the teacher can contribute by offering questions to drive the classroom experience (as we saw in this post), and at the same time allow for student control in answering those questions. The questions themselves are constructed in such a way as to motivate students to join in to ask their own questions throughout the process, thereby giving them agency over what they are learning. And since we are dealing with Big Questions (not little ones), the answers are incredibly elusive and, as a result, the teacher must become a student again and model the virtues of curiosity and humility needed to find the answers. Everybody feels valued and everybody’s needs are being met, together.

Now THAT is a human-centered classroom.

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“Students- Give me your honest feedback. How are we doing?”

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Asking questions is sometimes a painful act of courage, especially when you are asking the group of people whose opinions you value most: your students.

Chris Hallberg, business consultant and turnaround specialist, wrote this provocative blog post for Leadership Now about the questions business leaders should ask their employees about the health of their organizations.  These are not flaky questions one might find on a post-workshop survey. Many are unsettling Big Questions which test the emotional fragility of leaders who often fear constructive criticism and self-reflection.

As I read it, my mind gravitated towards comparisons to classroom teaching and so I decided to tweak the questions just a bit into ones that we could ask our students at the end of a semester or year.

Here we go!

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Wow and ouch!

As scary as these questions are, the responses to them would give us a wealth of information about the classroom experience, information that we could act upon to improve learning for all.

So if you are looking for something to do in class right after holiday break, look no further!

What is your favorite question on this list?

Which question on the list would you be most interested in getting answers to?

Which question makes you most nervous?

Reply to this blog or tweet a response to @dmfouts

More on Chris Hallberg:  Chris is ranked #9 on Inc.’s “Top 50 Leadership and Management Experts,” is a seasoned business consultant, turnaround expert, United States Army veteran, and author of The Business Sergeant’s Field Manual. You will find his blog at Business Sergeant

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Teachers: Are you more like an Alien or a Monster with your students?

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Do you have students who can’t function unless they have clear answers? Or students who question you to death about everything?  I do and I always find myself imploring the first group to tolerate the ambiguous nature of questions and the second group to appreciate the definiteness of answers. Helping students find a healthy balance between these two extremes is a daunting task.

A few years ago a student in my philosophy class sent me this delightful comic strip by Kostas Kiriakakis titled Mused: A Day at the ParkThe comic is a conversation between a bizarre looking alien with one eye, holding a mysterious box in his hands and a disheveled monster wearing an oversized coat and undersized hat. The monster wants to know what’s in the box, and the alien happily complies with the request…

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They then embark on a conversation exploring the pitfalls and possibilities of questions and answers and the relative role each should play as a guide for learning and life.

The conversation is fascinating. I’ve shared it with many colleagues and hundreds of students. Each person who reads it comes away with something different.

It also really gets me thinking about my own teaching philosophy:

Am I more like the alien or the monster with my students?

Which one SHOULD I be more like?

If being an alien and a monster are both important, then how do I know when to switch from one to the other to inspire the most student learning?   

Take a look.  How would you answer these questions?

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Answering Big Questions = Critical Thinking on Steroids

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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.?


If you are looking for PD in questioning, I’m teaching an online course this summer called Teach Different with Essential Questions. Course sessions begin May 6th, June 3rd and July 1st.

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Cultivating Virtue in a Big Questions Classroom

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Is it just me or are learning targets often written in very sterile and boring language?

In a social studies classroom…

Students can describe the political and social consequences of American imperialism.

or in an English classroom…

Students can summarize the main idea in Chapter 4 of the Great Gatsby 

There’s nothing wrong with these targets. They are very specific. They establish clear expectations for behavior. The content in both is important. They are written in ‘student-friendly’ language.

Yet there’s something about them that just isn’t very inspiring.

I think we write learning targets in this form out of fear, fear of living in a world where we are unable to measure learning. As a result of this fear, we’ve developed the habit of carving up learning experiences into digestible pieces which seem easier to measure and understand. In the first example above, we’ve isolated the student skill of describing something. Then, we will then devise an assessment which measures this skill using a rubric. After analyzing the data generated from applying the rubric, we will devise intervention strategies for improving student performance of the task. If this ecosystem of measurement goes as planned, we will be able to reproduce our strategies with a different group of students and hopefully see similar results.

All of this makes rational sense.

While I think this approach works well with certain learning tasks in certain learning environments, it runs into a brick wall when applied to a classroom guided by Big Questions.

Here’s why…

In a Big Questions classroom the ultimate goal of learning is to foster a certain way of thinking and being. The energy and culture of the classroom aren’t geared towards objective, scientific measurement of isolated learning tasks and behaviors, but rather towards the cultivation of certain dispositions- aka virtues- for living. Consider some of the virtues on display when students and teachers construct and apply Big Questions: patience, perseverance, humility, confidence and curiosity. These aren’t specific behaviors as much as they are signposts of good character and, as such, they are harder to think about and measure empirically. But the fact that they are harder to measure shouldn’t diminish their importance.

Big Questions classrooms can’t be exempt from learning targets. That is absurd. But they must include different kinds of targets which can exist happily alongside the more traditional ones.

I’ve come up with five learning targets, named “philosophical dispositions”, which all students in all of my classes are expected to meet throughout the year. I post them for all to see and make it a habit to acknowledge students who demonstrate them. In this way I am constantly assessing how students are developing these core virtues.


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With Big Questions leading the way, I hope that the cultivation of virtue will inspire students to care more about their learning and, more importantly, about the type of people they aspire to become. Now that’s a target we can all get behind.

Do you try to cultivate virtue in your students?  If so, how?

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Featured image– Taken from Google Images- free to share or modify