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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Big Question: Can War Be Glorious?

WarandGloryOn their face some Big Questions seem simplistic. They don’t involve big words or big concepts– that is, until you really start thinking.  High school teacher Justin Riskus constructed one of these Big Questions and used it during an exploration of the tragedy and triumph of war in his US history course.

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First, he posts the question on the front board “Can war be glorious?” Students receive a document containing a dictionary definition of ‘glorious” and two primary sources:

1. The Wilfred Owen poem Dulce Et Decorum Est

2. Medal of Honor Speech, PFC Ross A. McGinnis

Students read the Owen poem or watch a recitation of it by Christopher Eccleston. (Another option is to watch an animation  by Animative Media.) When exposed to the gut-wrenching descriptions of battle,  students will undoubtedly be lured into seeing the vulgarity and evil of war, hardly a glorious undertaking it seems.

After a short discussion of the Owen poem, students then get a very different side of war in the Medal of Honor Speech. Here we have a soldier being honored for his sacrifices in battle. In a particularly charged section of the speech, the courage of fallen soldier Private McGinnis is on display.

Then, rather than leaping from the gunner’s hatch to safety, Private McGinnis made the courageous decision to protect his crew. In a selfless act of bravery, in which he was mortally wounded, Private McGinnis covered the live grenade, pinning it between his body and the vehicle and absorbing most of the explosion.

With the emotionally charged poem and speech fomenting tension in their minds, students quickly go back to the question “Can war be glorious?”  Discussion ensues and students revisit the definition of ‘glorious’, apply it to the primary sources and shape fresh opinions about whether war itself is glorious.

Justin’s lesson has unleashed the power of Big Questions to inspire critical thinking:

  • Students are seeing the world from multiple perspectives
  • Students are grappling with the messy definition of a word
  • Students are working through their confusion, not being paralyzed by it

Most exciting is that Justin has established an anchor learning experience to which he can return later. Consider the future opportunities: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan— all of these wars present fresh opportunities to revisit the question.

What started as a simple inquiry has turned into a multi-dimensional, complex philosophical exploration into the unknown.

(P.S.  “Can war be glorious?” is a great question on which to structure an entire US history course. )

Download Lesson

Check out a few other lessons created by Justin Riskus:   To Intervene or not to Intervene: THAT is the Big Question and Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old… and counting.

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Big Question: How does the government protect its people during war, yet still preserve civil liberties?

FlowersMarikoArtifactPearlHarborWhat do you get when you combine a Pearl Harbor newspaper clipping , a WWII Dr. Suess cartoon , a rap about the internment camp experience and the heartrending children’s story Flowers from MarikoAnswer-  A REALLY Big Question: How does the government protect its people during war, yet still preserve civil liberties?

High School history teacher Julie Dickinson designed this introductory lesson as a student in the summer 2017 online course Socrates in the Social Studies. What I like about her lesson is that she uses the clipping and the cartoon to look at World War II from the perspective of the United FlowersMarikoStates. Then, using the rap and children’s story, she shows how the Japanese viewed the war through the harrowing experiences during and after internment. Juxtaposing these perspectives in this way creates fertile ground to sprout a Big Question at the end of the lesson.

It is interesting that Julie chose to end the lesson with the Big Question, as opposed to starting with it. By doing it this way, not only do I think she’s succeeded in creating a sense of anticipation for the students, but she also established a fixed anchor for future lessons. For example, the events of the McCarthy Era and Trump’s failed travel ban have deep within them the same tension between government power and individual liberty and therefore could be analyzed later using this same Big Question as a guide. Julie’s question would be a wonderful addition to the list of US history or government questions on which one could organize an entire course.

Do you use a similar question to explore the relationship between government power and civil liberties?  If so, what is it?

Check another one of Julie’s Big Question lessons in a previous post: How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?

Download Lesson (Designed by Julie Dickinson- Socrates in the Social Studies student summer 2017)

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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.?

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

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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

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