“I think, therefore I’m right,” says the Student.

Statements

“I think, therefore I’m right.” Whether it’s defending a position on gun control, angling for a better grade in class or arguing about musical tastes in the lunchroom, many students tend to think that thinking about and believing in something are sufficient grounds for the truth of that something. Often, adults are no better. The whole idea of actually having strong reasons behind beliefs is noble in the abstract but requires mountains of patience and work to actually put into action. Thus, when faced with the agonizing choice, many of us stick to our hard and fast opinions rather than embrace the grueling work to justify those opinions with careful reasoning.

But opinions without reasoning don’t get us very far when we are answering Big Questions, nor do they get us very far in life for that matter. So if we are going to be successful in both realms, we need some strategies.

There’s a strategy I’ve used for a few years now which forces students to think about (and hopefully appreciate) the wisdom of having reasons behind claims. It’s called, appropriately enough, “I think, therefore I’m right” (Unfortunately, I lost the article which outlines this strategy. When I find it, I’ll add the reference here.)

What you need:

  • Thirty or so unique knowledge statements ranging from the obvious to the nebulous. Put them on small slips of paper and laminate them if you can for continued use. Consider your subject area when you make your statements, although keep in mind that what the statements say is less important as to whether or not they provoke judgments from the students about whether the statements are reasonable or unreasonable.  (The picture above shows a sampling of statements I use in my philosophy class– Full List Here . )
  • Masking tape

Procedure:

  1. Make groups of 3
  2. Hand out 3-4  of the statements to each group. Tell group to discuss whether or not each statement is reasonable or unreasonable.REASONABLE
  3. On the board write “Reasonable” and “Unreasonable” and a line running underneath it with arrows in opposite directions.
  4. Tell each group to pick one statement and a student representative who, once the discussion is over, will come up to the front of the class and tape the statement onto the reasonable-unreasonable continuum in a position which best reflects his/her group’s opinion of the statement. The representative will have to provide a reason behind the opinion.

This is where it gets fun…

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After the student comes up and puts the statement on the board, play Socrates and ask “Why did you place it there?” Let the student report out on the reason. Keep pressing. Whatever reason he/she gives, demand that he/she share better and better justifications for the claim. Here is how it might play out with what seemed to be an obvious statement The Sky is Blue.

 

Teacher: why did you place it on the reasonable side?

Student: “because I’ve seen the sky on a clear day and it’s blue”

Teacher: “what about on a cloudy day?  Is it still blue?”

Student: “well, no, it’s gray.”

Teacher: ¨so then it isn’t really blue, is it?  Well what about somebody who is color blind. Is the sky blue to him?¨

Student: ¨I guess not¨

Teacher: ¨…so the color of the sky is subjective and depends on the person.¨

If  ¨The Sky is Blue¨ generates discussion, just imagine what will happen when students start discussing the statements like ¨Lying is always wrong,”  or ¨It is wrong to impose the death penalty.¨ It is so much fun!  Coax others to play Socrates and challenge other students’ beliefs too. This activity will probably spill into the next day.

Take a step back here and be careful what you are communicating…

You aren’t suggesting that there is no truth in the world.  You are affirming that strong beliefs are not enough to get to truth.  We need good reasons to support our thinking about all matters, big and small.

Strategies like this- combined with others like the 4-Sentence Paper— heighten student capacity to defend their claims, a skill which is essential to have when grappling with Big Questions.

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Sschat Debrief: Educators Speak Out On Big Questions- Part II

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This post extends last week’s debrief of ideas from the sschat “Teaching Teachers and Students to Ask Big Questions,” held on April 2, 2018.  Short commentary follows each comment with links to past blog posts relevant to the idea shared.

Thanks again to all who participated!  The next chat is  Creating Podcasts with Your Students #sschat  April 9, 2018 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm  Hosted by @listenwiselearn


Jason taps into a core truth of questions which is that the learning embedded inside question-asking is very hard to quantify. This fact causes anxiety for some teachers who work under systems which require quantifiable data of learning tasks. Data collection frustration is one of the inevitable costs of teaching with questions.


A seemingly impossible teaching challenge is to persuade students of the value of holding two opposing arguments in mind, while at the same time honoring each argument on its own terms– and then having patience and courage to choose the strongest one. This takes confidence and certitude. Big Questions force students and teachers to practice this task of argument-making in a meaningful way over time. One tool I’ve found that is really helpful here is the “4-Sentence Paper technique“. This simple technique expands student capacity to handle multiple perspectives and imbues them with confidence to take a stand.


I’ve been thinking about Andrew’s comment all week, actually. I didn’t want to believe what he said is right but it is. Some students just want to view social studies as a memorization game of disparate facts and dates. If that is true, then it is incumbent upon us as teachers to take great care to communicate early the importance of questions driving the learning process. The most dramatic way to communicate this value would be to organize an entire course by Big Questions. Short of that, though, we can be more intentional about using questions to guide our units and individual lessons. The brutal reality is that not all students will take to this questions approach. Despite our efforts, the psychological benefits of comfort and certainty which come with definitive answers are just too strong of a force for some students who turn away from critical thinking. At the very least, though, we will have strategically planted some seeds of doubt for future contemplation.


Katie’s response to the question “Can questions be assessed?” is insightful and comforting. We’ve come to assume that virtually everything in education must be measured and assessed somehow, yet as Katie suggests it really depends on what our purposes are. If students are asking questions to move a discussion along, then there’s no need to obsess over measuring their every move. In fact– as we’ve all experienced– sometimes fixating on assessment of learning causes us to miss present experiences because we’re too busy writing down what happened in the past!

Thanks again to all who contributed to this conversation. Check out the archives here.

The next chat is  Creating Podcasts with Your Students #sschat  April 9, 2018 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm  Hosted by @listenwiselearn


 

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Sschat Debrief (April 2, 2018): Educators Speak Out On Big Questions– Part I

Chat

On Monday, April 2nd the sschat community discussed the importance of teachers and students asking questions to guide instruction and learning. Since so many great ideas were shared, it seemed fitting to slow down and debrief some of the ideas in more depth, and acknowledge people in the process. The list below is just a small sampling of tweets yet it paints an authentic portrait of the types of conversations which unfolded.

I’ve also provided some of my own commentary with links to previous blog posts which expand upon the idea in a meaningful way.

Thanks to all who participated!  More coming soon.

Michael reveals an important truth about an inquiry-based classroom:  it builds character in teachers and students while at the same time making content more meaningful. Big Questions classrooms cultivate virtue.


Chris is spot on here. Questions– presented in the right way at the right time– inspire students and teachers to appreciate complex thinking and turn away from associating learning with memorization. In an earlier post I wrote about how teachers and students could learn and appreciate the motivational value of questions from– of all people– the Marines.


Several of the posts on this blog profile lessons created by teachers who have found success with children’s books showcased on this website. Here are just a few of the posts and the children’s book to which each post relates.

1.  Swimmy by Leo Lionni:  How do you know the Abolitionists were brave?

2. Araboolies of Liberty Street by Sam Swope:  How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?

3. If you give a mouse a cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff:  Is history guided by free will or determinism?

4. Flowers from Mariko by Rick Noguchi and Deneen Jenks: How does the government protect its people during war, yet still preserve civil liberties?

5. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch:  How do gender roles define people?

6. Part I- The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein: Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?

7. Part II- The Giving Tree


Dwight and Mrs. Devlin tap into a subtle, yet extremely important truth about putting questions at the centerpiece of your instruction– and that is that they act as a filter for your content and work to bound disparate ideas into a coherent whole over time. Being ‘intentional’- as Mrs Devlin put it- is key to make it work. Imagine structuring an entire course on Big Questions and achieving these purposes creatively along the way.


Elyse provides a simple yet powerful metaphor for the indispensable role questions can play in instruction. Maybe we make teaching harder than it needs to be when we start students off with specific content details and then try to encourage students to make big-picture sense out of those details, as opposed to starting with a big picture understanding and then fitting in details inside that understanding (which is what starting with Big Questions allows you to do). Teaching is hard enough. Maybe we make it harder than we have to.


Mary Ellen Daneels shared this famous Einstein quote to remind us that much of the valuable work in our classrooms should be thinking about the right questions to ask, not rushing off to fashion answers before we’ve thought through what it is we want to learn. Reconfiguring our priorities in this way necessitates that we cultivate the virtue of patience and slow down our instruction.

Stay tuned for more next week!

Here is an archive of the chat.

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Danger Ahead: The Brutal Truth of Teaching With Big Questions….

Danger

Over the years I’ve noticed something about professional development. Whenever a new teaching strategy is introduced, there tends to be a focus on the many benefits of the strategy but little consideration of what must be given up to enjoy those benefits. This is unfortunate because assessing the costs of a strategy alongside its promised benefits is the only way to make a smart decision as to whether it is worthy of adoption.

So let’s not make the same mistake with the Big Questions approach to teaching.

We ended last week’s post with a question:  What are the overriding benefits of using the Big Question approach that justify the costs?

Here we go.

The CostLiving in uncertainty 

Certainty is the first casualty of Big Questions and that’s because when you and your students ask the really deep questions, you realize really quickly that many of life’s questions own no simple answers:   How does the government protect its people during war, yet still preserve civil liberties ?    To what extent does history move according to determinism as opposed to the free choices of leaders?    Can war be glorious?  Discussions centered around these types of questions often end in student confusion and uncertainty. Despite your heroic efforts, this lack of clarity causes some students to feel estranged and pessimistic about learning, which makes them want to shut down.

The Benefit: Open-mindedness

On the other hand, an environment of uncertainty can inspire students to take passionate positions on issues and justify those positions with independent thinking. The classroom becomes fertile soil on which different perspectives work themselves out and compete with one another. Questions create space for open-mindedness. It imbues students with the confidence to speak and the humility to listen.


The Cost:  Predictability

You never really know what is going to happen when young people create or respond to a really good question. On the best of days, hands go up, people talk out of turn and there is passionate energy filling the room. On the worst days, there is boredom, bewilderment or indifference.  Add in the fact that adolescents are already succumbing to distractions of all kinds, and you realize quickly that your capacity to predict the direction of learning is greatly diminished when you choose to have questions drive instruction.  This brutal fact can be incredibly frustrating if you (or your students) thrive best in controlled learning environments.classroom

The Benefit: Teachable moments

Discarding the need for predictability is really tough yet, once the grieving process is over, I’ve found that what you get instead is an enhanced capacity to seize on great teaching moments. That’s because when students show interest and generate or respond to a really good question, you’re able to truly listen and consider it without needing to make it conform into a preconceived lesson box. As we all know, some of our best teachable moments don’t live inside carefully planned lessons. They are spontaneous experiences which we let unfold.


The CostQuantitative measurement

Students produce many things to show they are thinking:  they write papers, fill out exit slips and participate orally in class for example. All of these activities yield material evidence of learning.  Yet really deep thinking, the kind that is inspired by profound questions, is often disjointed, sporadic and inarticulate. It is a private mental experience not easily measured through behavioral analysis and therefore eludes the kind of scientific measurement used successfully with other learning tasks . Therefore, the more you and your students use Big Questions, the more you’ll have to live with the fact that some of what your students are learning won’t ever be known to you. You have to be okay with that.cultivatingVirtue

The Benefit: A focus on student character

Once you come to terms with the fact that not all learning can be measured in the same quantitative, reductionist way, you can begin to refashion your teaching to look for and promote student character virtues. Watch your students. Do they seem curious? Are they patient, thoughtful and do they persevere when faced with a difficult question? Do they embrace criticism with inquisitiveness rather than defensiveness? You can also begin asking yourself– How can I better model these virtues for my students?  With character as the focus, you have a better opportunity to assess your students as human beings with goals, aspirations, fears and hopes and you see yourself as a learning partner in this human-centered classroom.  In this way, questions humanize your teaching and bring people together.


Well, do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Hmm…

The answer is always a function of the curriculum in front of you, the unique characteristics of your students and your own capacity and willingness to do it, all of which are moving targets.

We can be certain of one thing:  It’s worth thinking about.

 

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Government and Guns Part II:  The Simulation is Over and Here’s What Happened

Simulation

The Senate Judiciary Committee Simulation is over. All in all, students did a really stellar job debating the pros and cons of the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act from the perspective of members of the committee and special interest groups like the NRA, police chief associations and the United States Concealed Carry Association, all of which gave passionate testimony to the committee. I could have done a better job preparing the committee members to integrate knowledge of their states’ demographics into the questions they posed to the special interest groups.

Just for fun, I offered students in one class the option of taking on the role of a founding father who shows up at the hearing unannounced to provide some historical perspective. One student took me up on it and arrived as Thomas Jefferson.  Mr. Jefferson reminded the committee that he and James Madison, when drawing up a code of conduct for the University of Virginia, stipulated that “No student shall, within the precincts of the University… keep or use weapons or arms of any kind..”  So it seems Jefferson himself would have been deeply opposed to the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. Good stuff!

I asked the students to consider all of what they learned in the simulation and generate one question which captured some aspect of the issue left unresolved. Here is a sampling of what they came up with:

What compromise can be created within the Reciprocity Act in order to resolve the resistance between the push for gun control in big cities, and the push for guns as a means of protection?

Can a measure that advocates for gun control ever really be enacted without infringing on people’s right to privacy and to bear arms?

How should the NRA and people that deal with mental illness work together to try to prevent people with these illnesses from obtaining guns?

What is more important? And individuals rights to bear arms and protect himself or the general safety of the population?  Why?

How can we ensure that backgrounds checks are going to be official considering all the failed ones that haven’t been able to report those who are mentally ill?

What compromise can be developed that would both restrict guns for the general safety of the public but also protect people’s right to the 2nd amendment?

Portrait

Next step is to have each student craft a letter to his/her senator or President Trump articulating a personal opinion on the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act or any other gun-related public policy issue. In the letter the student will offer research-based arguments- in favor or opposition to the bill- which were shaped during the simulation, and then move the government official to action in some way.  I will let students hand-write the letters if they want. Some of the students, on their own volition, will actually send the letter off to the elected official. ( Whether they send it off or not will have no bearing on their grade for the assignment.)

This final piece, writing a letter to a government official, promotes the idea that taking informed civic action must be a combination of passionate discussion and direct pressure on elected officials.

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This lesson was originally created and has been adapted over time with the help of colleagues Kelly Pecak and Tracy Parciak of Maine West High School’s social studies department.

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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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…

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?

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