For some students there is nothing that inspires more abject fear than participating in a class discussion.
You can almost predict the sequence of events…
The discussion starts. There is a mad rush for attention. Students obsessed with earning participation points shoot their hands up. Others wait back a little and contribute a few ideas here and there. Some talk constantly just to be heard; others simply repeat what’s already been said.
My friend’s high school-aged daughter volunteers every week in Chicago at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. There she gains invaluable experience working with individuals who suffer from physical limitations brought upon by a spinal cord injury, stroke, amputation or some sort of traumatic brain injury. She will play card and board games, for instance, to help patients work on memory and fine motor skills. These tasks, once routine, now require intense mental effort and energy. Continue reading →
Asking questions is sometimes a painful act of courage, especially when you are asking the group of people whose opinions you value most: your students.
Chris Hallberg, business consultant and turnaround specialist, wrote this provocative blog post for Leadership Now about the questions business leaders should ask their employees about the health of their organizations. These are not flaky questions one might find on a post-workshop survey. Many are unsettling Big Questions which test the emotional fragility of leaders who often fear constructive criticism and self-reflection.
As I read it, my mind gravitated towards comparisons to classroom teaching and so I decided to tweak the questions just a bit into ones that we could ask our students at the end of a semester or year.
Here we go!
Wow and ouch!
As scary as these questions are, the responses to them would give us a wealth of information about the classroom experience, information that we could act upon to improve learning for all.
So if you are looking for something to do in class right after holiday break, look no further!
What is your favorite question on this list?
Which question on the list would you be most interested in getting answers to?
Which question makes you most nervous?
Reply to this blog or tweet a response to @dmfouts
More on Chris Hallberg: Chris is ranked #9 on Inc.’s “Top 50 Leadership and Management Experts,” is a seasoned business consultant, turnaround expert, United States Army veteran, and author of The Business Sergeant’s Field Manual. You will find his blog at Business Sergeant.
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 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.
Or imagine doing this in AP government with the questions showcased in the new curriculum redesign.
Here is what’s happening:
You’ve established essential questions to be the most important component of the curriculum. This tells students that asking and answering them is valuable.
You’ve set struggle as the expectation of the course. This is a subtle message that learning will be difficult but still worth pursuing.
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 questions.
You’ve taught students that learning spans across units, instead of being confined within them.
Students get ownership. They decide what content fits where; they determine how the content fits; they can even develop their own question/s and track it throughout the year. In this way you have provided the context for student self-motivation.
You’ve given students their final exam right at the beginning of the year! 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 questions in the backdrop and use them for enriching discussions.
Can you see yourself organizing your course around questions? If so, what might it look like?
When I first came across this video from the online knowledge forum Big Think, I really didn’t know what to expect. Looking at the subtitle “Start Breaking Some Rules” I was a little apprehensive since I’ve always thought encouraging adolescents to break rules is equivalent to a classroom death sentence. My intrigue overcame suspicion and I watched it anyway.
Wow, I’m glad I did.
In the video we learn of the ‘crucible’, a high-pressure 56-hour obstacle course given to marines during boot camp in which they are placed in physically and mentally grueling situations. In one situation recruits are in a sand pit having to move ropes and logs. They are told to wait for orders from their superiors before doing anything. But because they and their superiors are wearing gas masks, recruits are rendered powerless to hear and follow the commands of their officers. They quickly realize they must devise their own path of action relying only on their instinctive judgments. The goal of this training is to cultivate what the trainers call an “internal locus of control,” whereby the marine is motivated to act without direction from others.
This is counter-intuitive to me.
I had always assumed that marines are motivated by being told what to do and following orders. But here recruits are taught to resist the impulse to follow orders. The underlying psychology here is fascinating: when people are put in positions to break from traditional patterns of thinking, their engines of self-motivation kick into gear and they learn to act with independence and confidence, skills- which for a soldier are indispensable in the chaotic and unpredictable world of warfare.
It got me thinking. How could I translate this lesson on self-motivation into my own classroom with my students?
Big Questions reveal different perspectives and welcome confusion over a topic. This confusion disrupts thinking and necessitates that students assume the responsibility of crafting their own path to find answers. In this way, like the marines, the students are inspired to cultivate an internal locus of control, which is the seed of self-motivation.
Here’s how this might play out in a government class with the Big Question: “Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?” No clear answer here. The students must design their own thinking rules for how to answer it and each student has some important decisions to make:
Should I focus on interest groups or leave them out?
Should I focus my analysis on Congress, the presidency or the courts, or maybe a little bit of each?
Should I limit my analysis to the branches of government or expand the analysis to include how people participate through protest?
Ultimately, we know what the students will do with Big Questions, at least initially. Ask the teacher! But here is where as teachers we must resist giving them orders on how to think about the question. The more we do that, the more students become dependent on us and the less they rely on their own instincts. Yes, the students are in for a struggle to be sure, but like the marines they will emerge from these classroom crucibles with heightened capacities for self-motivation and renewed courage to think for themselves. These skills have inestimable value.
What Big Questions do you think would best inspire students to develop an “internal locus of control”?