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 counter-intuitive 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?

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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”?

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Benjamin Franklin, Classroom Teachers and the Dangers of Perfection

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Perfection is a danger. Just ask Benjamin Franklin and social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg.

Why is it at the end of the year we become possessed with feelings of inadequacy about not doing enough for students? It’s like there’s this voice in the sky reminding us of the lessons we never got to, standards we failed to meet, paperwork left incomplete and lives untouched. Things didn’t turn out as we planned. It wasn’t perfect.

Meanwhile…

…many of our students are suffering the same feelings of regret thinking about the homework they should have done and the adult expectations they failed to meet. Added to their stress is the pressure of test scores and for seniors the torture of college decisions. The pressure to be perfect comes from all angles.

The quest for perfection is a monster that debilitates us and diminishes our capacity to grow into the best version of ourselves.  Social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg drew upon this psychology to construct a lesson featuring Benjamin Franklin, somebody who was able to overcome the alluring spell of perfectionism in the toughest of circumstances.

She begins, innocently enough, with a 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 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 poised 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 big 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 idea that imperfection can be a virtue.  Using Benjamin Franklin and the formation of the Constitution as a model, students and teachers learn that it is okay to turn away from the prison of perfection sometimes in the service of smart, responsible and practical decision-making.

Consider other periods of US history where you could explore the value of compromise and living with imperfection:

Reconstruction

Manifest Destiny and westward expansion

New Deal

Cold War

Lessons like this unearth a great benefit of Big Questions:  it’s not just that these questions get us to think deeply; it’s that they can cause us to feel deeply, and to move us to act in ways that make us better people.

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Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a child.

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It seems paradoxical but it’s not.

Children’s stories capture our imagination, make us wonder, and reveal the inherent mysteries of life in the simplest and most profound ways.

They can also motivate teachers and students of all grade levels and subjects to ask Big Questions.

You’ve already seen how the Araboolies of Liberty Street by Sam Swope can be used to teach the Civil Rights Movement and the 1st Amendment and how Swimmy by Leo Lionni can be used to teach the meaning of bravery in the Abolitionist Movement.

But there’s so much more.

The University of Washington Center for Philosophy of Children has a treasure trove of over 100 children’s stories along with innovative ideas on how to use these stories to introduce Big Questions in the classroom. Most of the stories can be adapted seamlessly to fit the middle and high school audience.

Consider these stories and the Big Questions they inspire:
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The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?

 

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The Big Box by Toni Morrison
Who gets to decide who is free? or What does it mean to have freedom?

 

 

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If you Give a Mouse a Cookie  by Laura Numeroff
Are historical events determined to happen or can humans change the course of history through their choices?

 

You might think you can’t use children’s stories, especially in a high school class! It’s too basic and simplistic. The kids will think you are insulting their intelligence.

Dispense with this thinking! Each time I’ve introduced a children’s story, I have found most of my students alert, intrigued and ready to think. This is because I’m drawing upon something familiar and creating a safe space for them to think. It’s the perfect entry point for asking Big Questions.

The best part is that you can come back to the children’s story repeatedly as you work your way through different units, all the while reinforcing the importance of the original Big Questions the story inspired. This strategy would be particularly valuable in an English class with a novel.

What children’s story do YOU use (or could you use) in your classroom?

Next Post: Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a Philosopher

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Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a philosopher.

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Ahh… Philosophy- that class you may have taken- or avoided- way back when. It seemed so abstract, out-of-touch and inaccessible. That’s probably because many of philosophy’s questions seemed so big that just thinking about answering them was intimidating. Questions like:

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What is good and what is evil?  And how do I know it?

Is my life guided by my free choices or is it determined by my past?

What is the meaning of life?

Complexity aside, since philosophy is all about Big Questions, maybe we can enlist it as the perfect ally in our quest to bring more inquiry into our classrooms.

Below are some resources in philosophy I’ve found to be imminently valuable to motivate Big Questions. You don’t need much experience in the subject to appreciate them as they are geared towards the general audience.

Resource #1: Children’s books– We’ve already seen how philosophical questions inside children’s stories can inspire Big Questions.

Resource #2:  The 60-Second Philosopher by Andrew Pessin contains mini-thought exercises organized by chapter which engage students in philosophical themes relevant to a myriad of disciplines- social studies, science and English to name a few. We’ve already seen this book used in previous posts within the lessons Can  intolerance be a Virtue? and Is America the Land of Opportunity?

Resource #3: School of Life.   This YouTube channel creates animated videos connected to philosophy, psychology, history and other humanities-based subjects. Some promote more adult themes but many, especially the ones connected to philosophy and psychology, are creative, entertaining and tied to many Big Questions like Who am I?   I have found these videos to be wonderful tools to stoke student curiosity.

Resource #4: The Pig that Wants to be Eaten. Baggini, Julian.  Here is a collection of 100 philosophical thought experiments including many of the best known, such as “The Ship of Theseus”. The thought experiments are presented in an accessible way and Baggini offers a one to two page analysis after each scenario, in addition to listing citations to explore original sources.

Resource #5: PLATO-Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization:  The Philosopher’s Toolkit has a collection of lesson plans to inspire philosophical discussions within a myriad of subject areas including math, literature, social studies and science. Each lesson indicates the audience for which it is best suited.

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Warning! Once your students start thinking philosophically, there is no turning back!

Do you use philosophy in any way to inspire Big Questions?  If so, how?

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Big Question: How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?

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What on earth does the Araboolies of Liberty Street children’s story by Sam Swope have to do with the Civil Rights Movement and the 1st Amendment?

Well, according to high school social studies teacher Julie Dickinson, a lot. Continue reading

Big Question: How do you know the Abolitionists were brave?

Swimmy

Hiding inside the iconic children’s story Swimmy by Leo Lionni, is the timeless theme of bravery and a great opportunity to teach students of all ages about the historical importance of  Abolitionist Movement. Continue reading