Big Questions and the Power of Storytelling

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Two truths about teaching:

1. Questions don’t work too well unless students are in the mood for them.

2. Nothing sets a mood like a good story.

Two truths about stories: 

1. They captivate the imagination.

2. They create healthy soil on which to grow Big Questions. Continue reading “Big Questions and the Power of Storytelling”

Want to ask BIGGER questions this summer? Check out these resources…

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Summer:  the perfect time to slow down and cultivate the skill of asking questions.

Here are some professional development resources and opportunities which can take your skill to the next level.

1. An online course:  Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America

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America is deeply divided on so many levels. Now more than ever we need big questions to explore these divisions and encourage our students to take action to improve society.

Play the role of Socrates and…

  • Design four Big Questions
  • Apply disciplinary tools to analyze those questions;
  • Evaluate and select sources relevant to the questions;
  • Craft four lessons to engage students in open dialogue to understand and take informed action when differences may arise.
  • Reflect upon the value of teacher/student questions and the challenges and possibilities of students taking informed action to improve society.  Learn More

I am excited to work with NCSS to serve as one of the instructors for this course!both

 


QFT22. A conference:  Right Questions Institute summer events in the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).

This simple and powerful strategy shows teachers how to get students to ask their own questions.

Here is a great article from ASCD on the nuts and bolts of the QFT technique. Also consider joining RQI’s Educator Network

I will be one of the presenters at the Chicago conference on June 28th.

 


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3. A Workshop:   IllinoisCivics.org

Civic education workshops are being held all over Illinois to help teachers meet the new Illinois civics requirements and social studies standards. In these workshops teachers will receive a whole host of FREE resources including strategies for how to craft and use compelling questions in the context of lesson planning.

Here are a list of workshops from June to August.

 


4. Webinars and Workshops from NCSSNCSSworkshops

Southeast IDM Workshop

The Southeast IDM™ Summer Institute will be at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, June 5-6, 2018.

Sponsored by C3 Teachers and National Council for the Social Studies, the Southeastern IDM Institute will feature hands-on opportunities for teachers to develop inquiry materials for use in their classrooms and to join a larger community of educators who share an interest in invigorating their classrooms through inquiry-based teaching and learning. ( Text from NCSS.org )

5. A few good books:MoreBeautifulQuestion

A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

In this groundbreaking book, journalist and innovation expert Warren Berger shows that one of the most powerful forces for igniting change in business and in our daily lives is a simple, under-appreciated tool–one that has been available to us since childhood. Questioningdeeply, imaginatively, “beautifully”–can help us identify and solve problems, come up with game-changing ideas, and pursue fresh opportunities. So why are we often reluctant to ask “Why?” (From Amazon.com)

MakeJustOneChange

Make Just One Change– Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana

This book introduces the QFT strategy mentioned above and describes in detail how to use it successfully. It is a quick and meaningful read.

 

 

The 60-Second Philosopher, by Andrew Pessin

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Offered in 60 bite-sized chapters, this book provokes, cajoles and entices students into considering deep, philosophical questions.

I profiled the 60-Second Philosopher in a previous post.

 

 

 

 


 

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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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Government and the Giving Tree– Part II: the Big Question comes of age

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Last week I wrote about how the famous story The Giving Tree inspired this Big Question.

Here’s how I used it in a regular level government class:

I started by playing a read-aloud of the story. Then the students– working in groups of two or three– came up with three takeaways from the story, which was then followed by an open-ended discussion. There was nothing I told them specifically to look for since at this point I just wanted them to be interested in the story. The read-along was around nine minutes and the group work plus discussion of the takeaways around 20 minutes.

From there as a class we considered the idea of help and generosity. We ruminated together:  “What qualifies as help? In what way is encouraging somebody else to do something ‘help’? If a person asks for help, does that mean they are needy and undeserving of it? When is too much help damaging to a person?” Students will ask other questions as well. The key here is to meander into topics beyond government, like the help students give to each other, or the help their parents provide them, or their coaches. Here is a wonderful opportunity to explore their personal lives in a safe way to enrich discussion.

These opening activities often fill an entire period. If you think this lesson is moving very slowly, you would be right! I’ve found that with this particular inquiry (and most Big Question inquiries for that matter), slowing down is precisely the right approach because it allows you and the students to make an intellectual and emotional investment into the theme in a meaningful way.  Rushing through Big Questions generates stress and leaves students disoriented.

On the the next day I hand out this:

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Students complete the survey and we then consider different example policies from the survey where government helped people in some way, whether it be providing welfare or protecting groups from discrimination, or making sure people have affordable health care. After each example, we ask “Is this an appropriate role of government? If so, why? If not, why not?”

Near the end of the period, the Big Question is rolled out:  Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?  Students sometimes fill out an exit slip with a preliminary answer; other times, students give a few responses and we just let the question sit, maybe write it up on the board as a reminder. For the rest of this unit on political ideology and political parties, the question becomes a fixture in our minds and is revisited multiple times. (We’ve seen this recursive function of questions at work in earlier posts: Can War Be Glorious? and To Intervene or not to Intervene. )

Consider what has happened. We have spent two full days thinking, questioning and discussing, together. Teacher and student are valued participants in the inquiry and the virtues of perseverance, patience and curiosity take center stage, all of which are signposts of a human-centered classroom. Very little static content has been learned which isn’t to say that content is not important. I’m preparing them to learn content inside the world of an interesting question.

Investments of time, though, don’t come without costs– especially inside an AP class where there is a more rigid schedule. Thus, a fair question to be asked is–What are the overriding benefits of using the Big Question approach that justify the costs?

One answer is this:  Now you have a clear vision for your teaching, a vision that you AND the students can rally around that provides enough structure to bind ideas together and enough flexibility to foster independent thought. Further, there’s a good chance that the investment you made discussing students’ personal experiences will engender more curiosity moving forward.

Okay, sounds great but are Big Questions really worth it?  In the next post we’ll explore this question in greater detail and get a better grip of the sacrifices needed to make it work.

 

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

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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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Teaching with Big Questions is like learning in slow-motion

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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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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…

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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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