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.
“I think, therefore I’m right.” Whether it’s defending a position on gun control, angling for a better grade in class or arguing about musical tastes in the lunchroom, many students tend to think that thinking about and believing in something are sufficient grounds for the truth of that something. Often, adults are no better. The whole idea of actually having strong reasons behind beliefs is noble in the abstract but requires mountains of patience and work to actually put into action. Thus, when faced with the agonizing choice, many of us stick to our hard and fast opinions rather than embrace the grueling work to justify those opinions with careful reasoning. Continue reading →
On Monday, April 2nd the sschat community discussed the importance of teachers and students asking questions to guide instruction and learning. Since so many great ideas were shared, it seemed fitting to slow down and debrief some of the ideas in more depth, and acknowledge people in the process. The list below is just a small sampling of tweets yet it paints an authentic portrait of the types of conversations which unfolded.
I’ve also provided some of my own commentary with links to previous blog posts which expand upon the idea in a meaningful way.
In Monday’s (1/22/18) sschat we discussed ideas for Embedding Writing into the Social Studies Curriculum. I shared an innovative tool called The 4-Sentence Paper, which 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 essential questions.
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 an essential 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 illusion 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 conversations.
Here are a few specific ways you could use this 4-Sentence paper strategy with your students in conjunction with essential questions:
Prepare arguments for a larger research paper
Prepare arguments for a class discussion on a controversial topic
Construct an exit or entrance slip to review a lesson which incorporated an essential question
With tools like the 4-Sentence Paper, you can harness the power of essential 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.)
On their face some Big Questions seem simplistic. They don’t involve big words or big concepts– that is, until you really start thinking. High school teacher Justin Riskus constructed one of these Big Questions and used it during an exploration of the tragedy and triumph of war in his US history course.
First, he posts the question on the front board “Can war be glorious?” Students receive a document containing a dictionary definition of ‘glorious” and two primary sources:
1. The Wilfred Owen poem Dulce Et Decorum Est
2. Medal of Honor Speech, PFC Ross A. McGinnis
Students read the Owen poem or watch a recitation of it by Christopher Eccleston. (Another option is to watch an animation by Animative Media.) When exposed to the gut-wrenching descriptions of battle, students will undoubtedly be lured into seeing the vulgarity and evil of war, hardly a glorious undertaking it seems.
After a short discussion of the Owen poem, students then get a very different side of war in the Medal of Honor Speech. Here we have a soldier being honored for his sacrifices in battle. In a particularly charged section of the speech, the courage of fallen soldier Private McGinnis is on display.
Then, rather than leaping from the gunner’s hatch to safety, Private McGinnis made the courageous decision to protect his crew. In a selfless act of bravery, in which he was mortally wounded, Private McGinnis covered the live grenade, pinning it between his body and the vehicle and absorbing most of the explosion.
With the emotionally charged poem and speech fomenting tension in their minds, students quickly go back to the question “Can war be glorious?” Discussion ensues and students revisit the definition of ‘glorious’, apply it to the primary sources and shape fresh opinions about whether war itself is glorious.
Students are seeing the world from multiple perspectives
Students are grappling with the messy definition of a word
Students are working through their confusion, not being paralyzed by it
Most exciting is that Justin has established an anchor learning experience to which he can return later. Consider the future opportunities: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan— all of these wars present fresh opportunities to revisit the question.
What started as a simple inquiry has turned into a multi-dimensional, complex philosophical exploration into the unknown.
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.
Does our system of government succeed or fail in preventing the abuse of power?
Do interest groups frustrate or promote democratic ideals?
Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?
Are the media and political elites a corrupt or wholesome influence on our system of government?
Do political parties improve or impair the ability of Congress and the executive branch to function according to the Framers intent?
Have the Court’s interpretation of the due process and equal protection clauses violated or honored the rule of law?
Is federalism an impediment to or a pathway towards effective public policy?
Here’s how I am using these…
At the beginning of the year each student received a document with these seven questions
As we move through the different units, we stop to integrate the content we are learning with one or more of these questions. This unit we are examining federalism and the role of the 14 Amendment, and so we are looking through questions 1, 6 and 7.
At the end of the year students join together in small groups, select one of the questions, develop a thesis and present a argument using all of what they have learned in the course.
This is the very similar to the approach I used in US history.