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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Cultivating Virtue in a Big Questions Classroom


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.


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?

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