Let Big Questions Drive Your Human-Centered Classroom.

DF Blog Text_Orange

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 control over what is taught. And deep down, they want to experience the joy of learning with their students. After all, they’re just students too, only a little older.

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 a genuine sense of 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’s needs are being met, together.

Now THAT is a human-centered classroom.

Sub-Images_BQPD (1)

 

 

 

 

 

Teachers: Are you more like an Alien or a Monster with your students?

AlienMonster

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…

QuestionsMUSED

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?

Sub-Images_BQPD (1)

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

Building Congress Government Dome Capitol Capital

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

Sub-Images_BQIA (1)

 

Cultivating Virtue in a Big Questions Classroom

cultivatingVirtue

Is it just me or are learning targets often written in very sterile and boring language?

In a social studies classroom…

Students can describe the political and social consequences of American imperialism.

or in an English classroom…

Students can summarize the main idea in Chapter 4 of the Great Gatsby 

There’s nothing wrong with these targets. They are very specific. They establish clear expectations for behavior. The content in both is important. They are written in ‘student-friendly’ language.

Yet there’s something about them that just isn’t very inspiring.

I think we write learning targets in this form out of fear, fear of living in a world where we are unable to measure learning. As a result of this fear, we’ve developed the habit of carving up learning experiences into digestible pieces which seem easier to measure and understand. In the first example above, we’ve isolated the student skill of describing something. Then, we will then devise an assessment which measures this skill using a rubric. After analyzing the data generated from applying the rubric, we will devise intervention strategies for improving student performance of the task. If this ecosystem of measurement goes as planned, we will be able to reproduce our strategies with a different group of students and hopefully see similar results.

All of this makes rational sense.

While I think this approach works well with certain learning tasks in certain learning environments, it runs into a brick wall when applied to a classroom guided by Big Questions.

Here’s why…

In a Big Questions classroom the ultimate goal of learning is to foster a certain way of thinking and being. The energy and culture of the classroom aren’t geared towards objective, scientific measurement of isolated learning tasks and behaviors, but rather towards the cultivation of certain dispositions- aka virtues- for living. Consider some of the virtues on display when students and teachers construct and apply Big Questions: patience, perseverance, humility, confidence and curiosity. These aren’t specific behaviors as much as they are signposts of good character and, as such, they are harder to think about and measure empirically. But the fact that they are harder to measure shouldn’t diminish their importance.

Big Questions classrooms can’t be exempt from learning targets. That is absurd. But they must include different kinds of targets which can exist happily alongside the more traditional ones.

I’ve come up with five learning targets, named “philosophical dispositions”, which all students in all of my classes are expected to meet throughout the year. I post them for all to see and make it a habit to acknowledge students who demonstrate them. In this way I am constantly assessing how students are developing these core virtues.


PhilosophicalDispositions


With Big Questions leading the way, I hope that the cultivation of virtue will inspire students to care more about their learning and, more importantly, about the type of people they aspire to become. Now that’s a target we can all get behind.

Do you try to cultivate virtue in your students?  If so, how?

Sub-Images_BQPD (1)

Featured image– Taken from Google Images- free to share or modify

Let’s imagine what a course with Big Questions might look like

classroom

Rewind back to August.

Imagine it’s the second day of school. You’re finished with the rules and procedures, seating charts and get-to-know-you activities. Standing in front of your students, you’re ready to set the tone and framework for the next nine months of instruction.

You pass out this note

Welcome!

The purpose of this course is to struggle with the The Big Questions of US history.

At first these questions will confuse you. They are filled with unclear definitions and open to many different interpretations and seem to have no clear answer.

Your job is to monitor these questions throughout the year and slowly craft sophisticated responses to them as we move through the different units of the course.

In June, your final exam will be to choose one of the Big Questions (which could be one that YOU created independently), develop a thesis statement, and answer it convincingly using the content learned in the course as your evidence.

There are a few exciting things going on here:

  1. You’ve established Big Questions to be the most important component of the curriculum. This tells students that asking them is valuable.
  2. You’ve set struggle as the expectation of the course. This is a subtle message that learning will be difficult but still worth pursuing. This is the growth mindset.
  3. You’ve honored the importance of skills while at the same time preserved the integrity of content.  And now you can discriminate your content based on whether or not it fits under one or more of the Big Questions.
  4. You’ve taught students that learning spans across units, instead of being confined within them.
  5. Students get ownership. They decide what content fits where; they determine how the content fits; they can even develop their own Big Question and track it throughout the year. In this way you have provided the context for student self-motivation.
  6. You’ve given students their final exam   on the second day of class! For the next nine months there is no confusion as to where the class is headed. This focuses you and the students like a laser on what is to be learned and why.

Admittedly,  it would be much more of a challenge to do this in an AP course with a rigid curriculum and content expectations. But even then you could have Big Questions in the backdrop and use them for enriching discussions.

Could YOU organize your course using Big Questions?  If so, what might it look like?  Share some examples of Big Questions you would use for your subject area.

Sub-Images_BQIA (1)

Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old (and counting…)

appeasementFrom Socrates forward, we’ve asked:

Does everything happen for a reason?

Am I really in control of my actions?

Would I have turned out differently had I been born at a different time under different circumstances?

Underneath all of these big questions lurks an even bigger one:  Is my life guided by free will or determinism?  Open to interpretation and filled with murky definitions– this question has everything.

What makes the question so vexing is that it pits our common sense against our logic. It seems obvious that we have the freedom to act. But then, when we rewind our decisions and really think, it seems like every action we take is determined by the action taken just before it. Our logic tells us there is no way it could have happened any other way.

High school history teacher and Socrates in the Social Studies student Justin Riskus provokes this thousands-year-old Big Question to teach World War II. He begins in an unorthodox way by showing If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff.

Cookie

The narrator intones “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk.” Once that action occurs, the mouse must ask for a straw and then a napkin etc… Each action the mouse takes seems completely determined by the action taken just before. At the end, in a twist of irony, the mouse asks for a glass of milk and then a cookie to go with it, and we are back where we started.

Justin uses this story to stoke student interest in the Allies’ appeasement policy towards Hitler leadingBad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung up to WWII.  There too we see a seemingly endless string of determined events, piling up on each other leading to one of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen.  A voice in our head asks “Was World War II determined to happen?” Justin cleverly uses the behavior of a mouse to inspire students to call into question whether history itself is caught in the iron grip of determinism or whether leaders have the free will to break history’s chain of events.

Employing a Socratic Seminar, Justin then coaxes students to consider the moral responsibility of modern day presidents.

“Should American presidents take the lesson of  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie to heart?”

Justin has drawn out an age-old philosophical question and looked at it with fresh eyes. In doing so, his students  are inspired to think about the choices humans must make in the service of preventing evil.

Download Full Lesson Here

Check out a few other lessons created by Justin Riskus:   Can War Be Glorious? and To Intervene or not to Intervene– THAT is the Big Question.

LessonArtifacts

Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a philosopher.

Thinker

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:

composite of question mark graphic over sea with pier

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.

Toolkit

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?

Sub-Images_BQPD (1)