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

Statements

“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

Procedure:

  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…

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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

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

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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:

politicalIdeology

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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Danger Ahead: The Brutal Truth of Teaching With Big Questions….

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Over the years I’ve noticed something about professional development. Whenever a new teaching strategy is introduced, there tends to be a focus on the many benefits of the strategy but little consideration of what must be given up to enjoy those benefits. This is unfortunate because assessing the costs of a strategy alongside its promised benefits is the only way to make a smart decision as to whether it is worthy of adoption.

So let’s not make the same mistake with the Big Questions approach to teaching.

We ended last week’s post with a question:  What are the overriding benefits of using the Big Question approach that justify the costs?

Here we go.

The CostLiving in uncertainty 

Certainty is the first casualty of Big Questions and that’s because when you and your students ask the really deep questions, you realize really quickly that many of life’s questions own no simple answers:   How does the government protect its people during war, yet still preserve civil liberties ?    To what extent does history move according to determinism as opposed to the free choices of leaders?    Can war be glorious?  Discussions centered around these types of questions often end in student confusion and uncertainty. Despite your heroic efforts, this lack of clarity causes some students to feel estranged and pessimistic about learning, which makes them want to shut down.

The Benefit: Open-mindedness

On the other hand, an environment of uncertainty can inspire students to take passionate positions on issues and justify those positions with independent thinking. The classroom becomes fertile soil on which different perspectives work themselves out and compete with one another. Questions create space for open-mindedness. It imbues students with the confidence to speak and the humility to listen.


The Cost:  Predictability

You never really know what is going to happen when young people create or respond to a really good question. On the best of days, hands go up, people talk out of turn and there is passionate energy filling the room. On the worst days, there is boredom, bewilderment or indifference.  Add in the fact that adolescents are already succumbing to distractions of all kinds, and you realize quickly that your capacity to predict the direction of learning is greatly diminished when you choose to have questions drive instruction.  This brutal fact can be incredibly frustrating if you (or your students) thrive best in controlled learning environments.classroom

The Benefit: Teachable moments

Discarding the need for predictability is really tough yet, once the grieving process is over, I’ve found that what you get instead is an enhanced capacity to seize on great teaching moments. That’s because when students show interest and generate or respond to a really good question, you’re able to truly listen and consider it without needing to make it conform into a preconceived lesson box. As we all know, some of our best teachable moments don’t live inside carefully planned lessons. They are spontaneous experiences which we let unfold.


The CostQuantitative measurement

Students produce many things to show they are thinking:  they write papers, fill out exit slips and participate orally in class for example. All of these activities yield material evidence of learning.  Yet really deep thinking, the kind that is inspired by profound questions, is often disjointed, sporadic and inarticulate. It is a private mental experience not easily measured through behavioral analysis and therefore eludes the kind of scientific measurement used successfully with other learning tasks . Therefore, the more you and your students use Big Questions, the more you’ll have to live with the fact that some of what your students are learning won’t ever be known to you. You have to be okay with that.cultivatingVirtue

The Benefit: A focus on student character

Once you come to terms with the fact that not all learning can be measured in the same quantitative, reductionist way, you can begin to refashion your teaching to look for and promote student character virtues. Watch your students. Do they seem curious? Are they patient, thoughtful and do they persevere when faced with a difficult question? Do they embrace criticism with inquisitiveness rather than defensiveness? You can also begin asking yourself– How can I better model these virtues for my students?  With character as the focus, you have a better opportunity to assess your students as human beings with goals, aspirations, fears and hopes and you see yourself as a learning partner in this human-centered classroom.  In this way, questions humanize your teaching and bring people together.


Well, do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Hmm…

The answer is always a function of the curriculum in front of you, the unique characteristics of your students and your own capacity and willingness to do it, all of which are moving targets.

We can be certain of one thing:  It’s worth thinking about.

 

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Government and Guns Part I: Seize the Teaching Moment

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Sometimes Big Questions don’t direct learning; they emerge from it.

Lost in thought and feelings of despair over the latest tragedy in Florida, I decided to ditch my regularly scheduled government programming and opt instead to hold a congressional hearing simulation on gun control.  My classroom will become the Senate Judiciary Committee considering a bill called the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.  This bill passed the House of Representatives in the fall and is slated for debate in the Senate this spring. In a nutshell, the bill says that any person from a state which has legalized concealed carry can travel into any state which has outlawed the practice. Essentially then, should this bill become law, a person’s right to concealed carry would have to be honored by all 50 states. Students assume the roles of actual Senate Judiciary Committee members who question other students who are playing the role of interest group representatives giving testimony on their positions for and against the bill.

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With this latest tragedy fresh in the minds of legislators, the chances of this bill passing the Senate are slim. Yet, this activity is a valuable chance to explore why it is so hard for our society to agree on gun issues. Also, this is a golden opportunity to dive deeper into how all aspects of our government work together to try to address problems.

Consider just some of the areas of government touched by this issue:

Civil liberties (2nd Amendment)

Supreme Court  ( U.S. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago )

Congress (bicameral legislature, filibuster, hearing, committees, mark-up)

Political parties and ideology (liberal, conservative, polarization, single-issue voters, party discipline)

Interest groups (information, advocacy, upper-class bias)

Campaigns and Elections (Pacs and SuperPacs, Citizens United, FEC)

Federalism (full-faith and credit clause, 10th Amendment, 14th Amendment selective incorporation)

Presidency (informal/formal powers, executive orders)

What about the Big Questions?

After the simulation is over, each student will generate a Big Question about the gun issue which emerged as a result of what they learned during the simulation. It’s hard to predict exactly what the students will want to ask but I’m confident the questions will lend fresh perspectives on an issue whose resolution is long overdue.

In the next post I will share some of their Big Questions!

If you try this activity out, let me know how it goes!  @dmfouts

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To Intervene or not to Intervene– THAT is the Big Question

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Sometimes good teaching involves misdirection. You start with a topic that seems unrelated to the class, drift to another activity and then to another. If all goes well, (a big assumption!) your students are emotionally and intellectually invested in learning. High school history teacher Justin Riskus tries his hand at misdirection in a lesson on U.S. humanitarian interventions.

He starts by having the students read a provocative chapter from Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher titled “You Choose, You Lose“. The chapter itself has nothing to do with history but everything to do with making excruciating choices on how to prioritize the saving of human lives. Picking up on this idea of making choices, Justin slowly introduces two humanitarian crises in which the U.S. had to make hard choices about whether or not to intervene to save lives: the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict.

Students are assigned to a crisis and put into groups to explore it. During their group work they fill out this chart.  Discussion ensues and the Big Question is rolled out:

Is the United States morally obligated to intervene in global humanitarian crises?

What started as a mysterious thinking activity on making choices ends in a profound moral discussion about the proper role the U.S. should play on the world stage. What I like about this Big Question is that it is written as if there is a yes or no response, yet once answered, immediately begs the irresistible follow-up question WHY?  It demands that the students think critically to generate criteria for when intervention might be justified. As an added bonus, Big Questions like this which center around morality are very portable in that you can carry them into other units of study and offer fresh opportunities for exploration.

Teaching through misdirection with Big Questions has another hidden benefit–  it slows down the learning process for teacher and students. This slowing down- as we saw in the last post– gives students and teachers valuable opportunities to deepen understanding over time.

Download Full Lesson

Check out a few other lessons created by Justin Riskus:   Can War Be Glorious? and Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old… and counting.

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“You Choose, You lose” chapter from 60-Second Philosopher used with permission

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

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In Monday’s (1/22) sschat we discussed ideas for Embedding Writing into the Social Studies Curriculum (archive here). 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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