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

Chat

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

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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….

Danger

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 the Giving Tree– Part I: a Big Question is born

Giving
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Rewind five years or so…

The setting:  I needed a Big Question in government to teach about liberal and conservative views on the role of government, a topic that often generates intense debate. On one side are students who think government’s role should be limited and people should fix their own problems. On the other side are students insistent that government has a moral obligation to help citizens directly. From health care to welfare, from tax policy to social security, this fundamental disagreement on the role of government lurks beneath so many issues and even fuels much of the party polarization within Congress.

I knew that a Big Question lived somewhere but I just hadn’t taken the time to slow down and think through it enough. Needing an inspiration, I visited one of my favorite websites to motivate Big Questions– the UW Center for Philosophy for Children. (We learned about this website in a previous post and also used it in conjunction with Big Questions to teach about bravery, freedom, free will and determinism, security v liberty in a time of war, and the Constitutional Convention.)

thought-2123970_1920I looked around a bit aimlessly at first and then stumbled upon one of my all-time favorite children stories: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, which I remembered covered the theme of help and generosity. Seeing connection possibilities but not being able to articulate anything specific yet, I read it again, this time with a fresh set of eyes and a mission.

Half-way into the story, I saw something.

Here is a spirited attempt to recapture my jumbled thoughts at the time:

I thought about the interactions between the boy and the tree. The tree keeps giving things to the boy. The boy receives these gifts throughout his life. The tree seems to be so generous and the boy seems to like taking things.  Maybe the boy is giving a sense of purpose to the tree and the tree is happy as a result.  I thought about the whole idea of giving and receiving help, which then led me to start thinking about whether or not it is okay to rely on people or instead to rely on ourselves. What is the more honorable way to live? I wondered.

Then, slowly, connections to government surfaced…

…people rely on their government to give them lots of things too. Welfare, education, health care… and sometimes the more government gives, the more dependent people feel and the more they expect to be served.  Is this bad? Good? What about personal responsibility?  

After stewing on the story for a while and drafting questions, one revealed itself: Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?

Bingo!

Then, I just let the question sit in my mind for a few days– all the while evaluating whether or not it was compelling enough to use.  I thought about some of the criteria:

Big Questions embrace multiple perspectives:  The question asks for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response on its face but actually requires a very nuanced understanding of the issue and demands that students consider many different perspectives in their answers: from a wealthy or poor citizen point of view, for example, or from an urban or rural perspective, or an owner of a small business. Students learn very quickly that ‘yes’ or ‘no’ just won’t suffice and that the answer is way more complex than it appeared.

Big Questions beg for clear definitions: The word “help” needs to be unpacked. What exactly qualifies as help? Can two reasonable people disagree as to what constitutes help? What form must help take to be called ‘help’? In what way is encouraging somebody else to do something ‘help’ and how is that different from direct help?

I knew this was a good one because the more I thought of it, the more confusing it became. That is always a good sign!


This was a success story to be sure but there’s a brutal reality to Big Questions– unless we’re patient and truly slow down our instruction, we’ll struggle mightily to find space for them in our curriculum.

But it can be done.

The next challenge was to figure out how to use the question in creative ways. In the next post I’ll share how to integrate it and brainstorm some other possible applications.

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FDR’s New Deal– A Big Question Comes to the Rescue

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What makes FDR’s presidency so hard to teach is there is so much relevant content to explore in such a short chunk of time.  You have WWII to contend with on the foreign policy front. But then on the domestic front you’re confronted with the maze of alphabet soup programs of the New Deal. And to top it off, since it’s near the end of the year, you’re often rushed.

This is exactly the kind of situation where strategic use of a Big Question can help alleviate some of your pressure without sacrificing the most important content.

US history teacher Bry Roemer found an innovative way to do just that with a question that strikes at the heart of FDR’s New Deal: How much is the government responsible for helping its citizens?

She makes creative use of an advertisement project to get the question in front of students. Here is how she did it along with my commentary on some other ideas for how you could use the question:

  1.  Hand out the project description.
  2. Assign small groups of students to one of the New Deal programs. Here is a compilation of short readings on the New Deal Agencies.
  3. Students read up on the New Deal program to which they’re assigned and design an advertisement to promote the program’s virtues to class. Advertisements must include an image to catch the attention of the audience and lay out the vision of the program along with descriptions of how it provides relief, recovery, or reform for Americans.
  4. Post advertisements around the room and have students capture information on a graphic organizer (contained in project description).SlowDown

To this point learning has moved at a brisk pace– getting into groups, finding pictures, reading passages, talking about history, creating an advertisement.

It would be so easy to wrap up the lesson and chalk it up as a success.

But no. Bry’s not done yet…

Now, with content in hand, student learning slows down and in comes the Big Question which rises above the content into consideration of a larger theme:

How much is the government responsible for helping its citizens?

With the introduction of this question, philosophical reasoning– and the resulting confusion flowing from having to consider different perspectives— has joined content acquisition as the focus of learning.

Now that this question has entered the fray, we have all sorts of intriguing options.  We could

  • pose the question as something to consider during the unit and discuss with students informally as the unit moves forward (this is what Bry did).

or

  • have a full class discussion where students use content from their graphic organizer to shape and defend arguments aligned to the Big Question.

or

  •  give out an exit slip with the question on it and discuss a few the next day.

or

  • find a current event video/audio clip explaining how one of the New Deal programs has evolved over time.  Have students answer the question in light of what they learn.

or

  • challenge students to compare government responsibility during the New Deal with government responsibility during and after the Civil War. Of the two, which time period justified more government help to citizens? Why?  Oops, another Big Question!

Questions liberate students from the shackles of curriculum content and provide space for analysis, application and synthesis. When we give students opportunities to do this, we set in motion a process that results in deeper, more meaningful learning.

And we just might eliminate some stress in the process.


For more thoughts on government responsibility to citizens, see previous posts

Government and the Giving Tree– Part I: a Big Question is born

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

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