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 Park. The 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…
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?
Big Questions are great tools to organize courses and units. Regardless of how we end up using them, sooner or later reality demands that students find some answers! And here’s where the real work begins.
Consider the challenge this way: to answer a Big Question well students must not only rememberwhat they have learned, but they must connectthat learning with the question in a way that shows deep understanding and an ability to constructan argument to solvean intellectual problem. Sounds like critical thinking on steroids.
Here are a few example responses from a student in my AP government class. (Wait! Disclaimer! “Yes” this is an exceptional example and “No” most of my students aren’t able to think this clearly and write this well!). But disclaimer aside, the responses here can help us get a clearer picture of what we are looking for.
Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?
Connection to our Campaigns and Elections unit…
Student Response: The Electoral College may be an effective argument for the fact that popular sovereignty may be an illusion. One may look to the 2016 election. In order to win the presidential election, one must win a certain number of electors, who cast their vote in favor for that candidate depending on the popular vote of the state. Although Donald Trump may have won the Electoral Vote, Clinton won the popular vote by a few million, bolstered by the strong support in states such as California, Illinois, and New York. Since candidate Clinton lost the presidential election, despite winning the popular vote by a significant margin, one might consider that popular sovereignty might be more of an illusion, or at least convoluted, than what our people like to say. Or others might argue that the electoral college is a form of popular votes by the states, as the candidate needs to appeal to a wide range of voters in order to succeed.
Connection to our Judiciary unit…
Student Response: The appointment of judges is somewhat contrary to popular sovereignty. A president must nominate a judge, and that nominee must pass a majority of the senate. While the public might be able to mail their senators and try to sway their vote, the will of the people has a diminished effect on this process. In addition, only impeachment, death, or retirement can bring these judges out of office; the populace can’t vote them out. One might argue that popular sovereignty has no effect in this regard because of these listed reasons. Yet this appears to be intentional by the Framers. If judges could be elected, they would interpret the law according to the
people’s will to stay in office, rather than what they would regard as the truth. Although it is an illusion, perhaps it is better that way in this instance.
The content of the course is still important but now it’s being used to serve a larger purpose (answering a provocative question).
Valuable skills are in full force- analyzing, connecting and making arguments.
Learning is expressed acrossunits, instead of being confined within them.
It’s actually more interesting to read because the teacher is getting an insight into what concepts stuck during instruction. This is valuable feedback.
This student has demonstrated a deep understanding of the popular sovereignty theme. For other students who may have missed these connections, it’s not the end of the game. There will be several other opportunities in subsequent units to revisit the theme in a new setting, and that provides a fresh opportunity to make a connection. Herein lies the beauty of Big Questions: they provide a recursive learning experience. If you don’t get it the first time, try, try again!
Government teachers: Can you think of any other areas of government content which could connect to this Big Question? Or how about other government big questions from a previous post.?
If you are looking for PD in questioning, I’m teaching an online course this summer called Teach Different with Essential Questions. Course sessions begin May 6th, June 3rd and July 1st.