“Teacher! Help!! I can’t answer the Big Question!”


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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