Tag Archives: big question

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” Sun Tzu

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Was the Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu onto something?  John Kennedy thought so.

A few weeks ago I shared a Three-Step process used to design essential questions and create great memorable conversations in class.

Here’s another example of how you might follow this process in a unit on the Cold War in US history.

Step One: Quotesuntzu

Pick a theme, primary source and a quote aligned to the theme.

You’re teaching the Cold War and you think your students would be interested in the theme of fighting— when to do it and how to do it to make sure you achieve maximum benefit. Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech is your target primary source because it demonstrates the value of using words, not violence, to solve problems.

Ancient philosopher Sun Tzu has a provocative angle on this theme:  “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”

Now pick apart Sun Tzu’s quote. Find the claim being made. 

Claim:  The best way to deal with your enemies is by not fighting them.

Step Two:  Counterclaim

Now articulate the counterclaims which assert competing perspectives.

Example Counterclaim:  Attacking your enemy– trying to overwhelm him– is the best path towards victory.

Have a silent conversation with yourself over the different ways you and your students may view this quote…It might sound like this:  It seems very counter-intuitive to claim that you can actually win over your enemies without fighting. Surely many students are under the impression that direct confrontation with others is the only way to win.  Sun Tzu is offering a different perspective here, one that must somehow incorporate other means of getting your way.

Step Three: Essential Question

After exploring the claims and counterclaims of the philosopher quote, slow down and think back to the primary source– Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech.  Think of a Big Question that draws out the theme.

Here’s one:  Is fighting the best way to get what you want?

  1. Is it accessible?  Can students understand the question easily?  Does it make them want to share personal experiences?  √

  2. Is it provocative?  Does the question force students to take a stand on something and provide evidence to support their position?  √

  3. Is it complex?  Can the question be answered by multiple perspectives?  √

  4. Is it transferable? Can the question be re-purposed to apply to different contexts?  √

This question pulls students into an interesting conversation about the value of fighting and violence as a solution to problems.

To implement this lesson, post the quote on the board and engage the students’ ideas on fighting. What you are doing is preparing the soil for the introduction of your primary source.

Now, introduce the Big Question as you share Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech. With the Big Question and Sun Tzu quote in hand, students have the tools to explore the historical importance of Kennedy’s decision and connect all of it to their own personal experiences.

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Here are some more examples of how to go through this 3-step process with other quotations. They come from another blog I’m managing for Teach Different, a professional development organization geared towards helping teachers with the essential-question creation process.

As you read these posts think about the primary sources you teach and how you might make them more interesting.

Mahatma Gandhi   Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good

Asechylus Wisdom comes alone through suffering

Leo Tolstoy  Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

Benjamin Franklin   Energy and persistence conquer all things. 

Asechylus   Wisdom comes alone through suffering.

Henry Ford    Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently


Check out this Cartoon.  It outlines this 3-Step student engagement technique and gives you the opportunity to receive ThinkAlouds showing the process in action.

Cartoon

Nervous about an impeachment discussion? Try this…

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The bad news is we live in a time when everything in politics seems to be so emotionally charged and negative that it’s a struggle to talk to one another.

The good news is that carefully crafted questions can diminish this negativity and nurture better conversations. Continue reading

Harness the Immigration Debate with these Big Questions

immigrationWe’ve all seen the images, heard the audio and read the tweets. The immigration debate has everybody busting at the seams on both sides.

And August is just around the corner.

And we know what that means.

Students will be walking into our classrooms confused, tired, angry and needing answers. And we will be trying to figure out ways to teach a historical, psychological, sociological or political understanding of the immigration issue while at the same time resisting the impulse to impose our own opinions– a delicate and seemingly impossible burden.

This is exactly the kind of environment in which Big Questions  thrive. Continue reading

Big Questions and the Power of Storytelling

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Two truths about teaching:

1. Questions don’t work too well unless students are in the mood for them.

2. Nothing sets a mood like a good story.

Two truths about stories: 

1. They captivate the imagination.

2. They create healthy soil on which to grow Big Questions. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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

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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 it through enough.  Needing an inspiration, I visited one of the 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.)

I 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, theis 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 throughs 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: Continue reading