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

Teaching with Big Questions is like learning in slow-motion

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Here’s something to think about after the Super Bowl.

We know why we like instant replay so much. We get to see reality in slow motion to catch what we missed the first time. With instant replay we have the power to paint a more in-depth, accurate picture of what happened. With a clearer picture in mind, we gain a deeper understanding.

As teachers, we are interested in understanding too, but unlike football, we don’t get the benefit of replay. We must catch our mistakes the first time and make on-the-fly adjustments based on intuition and incomplete information. Thus, we’re always chasing certainty and our picture of reality is always fuzzy.

Think of how fast a typical lesson moves.  We open with a bell-ringer activity, give an announcement of the daily learning target, sprinkle in a few lecture notes and explain the directions for the lesson. Then, we get students into cooperative learning groups and end with some sort of full-class discussion after which we hand out an exit slip.  Lessons often feel like an assembly line of tasks.  It’s stressful to complete all of them, and we’re often left with the sense that we aren’t getting at true student understanding along the way.

Wouldn’t it be great to have instant replay and stop at any moment to slow down and examine our practice, dissect its parts and make corrections before moving on?

We can’t do that.  BUT what we can do is teach in a different way by integrating more Big Questions.

When we ask a really Big Question– like Can War Be Glorious?— our classroom retires into slow motion. Teacher and student transition from frenetic task-oriented activities into methodical, deliberate thinking. Together, we thoughtfully consider definitions, entertain multiple ways of seeing an issue and construct precise, focused answers to challenging intellectual problems. We aren’t racing to complete many tasks; we are more mindful of the task at hand. This is what a human-centered classroom looks like.

Not only that, we can build recursive learning experiences in which the questions themselves reappear in multiple units of study (as we saw in this post). Repeated exposure to the questions acts like classroom instant replay, inspiring teacher AND student to see and seize opportunities for improvement. As students correct their errors of thinking and forge fresh connections between the content and the questions, teachers recognize new ways to nurture students along the journey.

Together, we achieve deeper understanding over time.

 

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“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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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)

 LessonArtifacts

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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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?

 

BigBox

 

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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