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


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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Teaching with Big Questions is like learning in slow-motion


Here’s something to think about after the Super Bowl.

We know why we like instant replay so much. We get to see reality in slow motion to catch what we missed the first time. With instant replay we have the power to paint a more in-depth, accurate picture of what happened. With a clearer picture in mind, we gain a deeper understanding.

As teachers, we are interested in understanding too, but unlike football, we don’t get the benefit of replay. We must catch our mistakes the first time and make on-the-fly adjustments based on intuition and incomplete information. Thus, we’re always chasing certainty and our picture of reality is always fuzzy.

Think of how fast a typical lesson moves.  We open with a bell-ringer activity, give an announcement of the daily learning target, sprinkle in a few lecture notes and explain the directions for the lesson. Then, we get students into cooperative learning groups and end with some sort of full-class discussion after which we hand out an exit slip.  Lessons often feel like an assembly line of tasks.  It’s stressful to complete all of them, and we’re often left with the sense that we aren’t getting at true student understanding along the way.

Wouldn’t it be great to have instant replay and stop at any moment to slow down and examine our practice, dissect its parts and make corrections before moving on?

We can’t do that.  BUT what we can do is teach in a different way by integrating more Big Questions.

When we ask a really Big Question– like Can War Be Glorious?— our classroom retires into slow motion. Teacher and student transition from frenetic task-oriented activities into methodical, deliberate thinking. Together, we thoughtfully consider definitions, entertain multiple ways of seeing an issue and construct precise, focused answers to challenging intellectual problems. We aren’t racing to complete many tasks; we are more mindful of the task at hand. This is what a human-centered classroom looks like.

Not only that, we can build recursive learning experiences in which the questions themselves reappear in multiple units of study (as we saw in this post). Repeated exposure to the questions acts like classroom instant replay, inspiring teacher AND student to see and seize opportunities for improvement. As students correct their errors of thinking and forge fresh connections between the content and the questions, teachers recognize new ways to nurture students along the journey.

Together, we achieve deeper understanding over time.


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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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