Answering Big Questions = Critical Thinking on Steroids


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 remember what they have learned, but they must connect that learning with the question in a way that shows deep understanding and an ability to construct an argument to solve an 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 votePeoplePower 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. WhileThe Roberts Court, 2017 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.


  1. The content of the course is still important but now it’s being used to serve a larger purpose (answering a provocative question).
  2. Valuable skills are in full force- analyzing, connecting and making arguments.
  3. Learning is expressed across units, instead of being confined within them.
  4. 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.?

Can Big Questions motivate Students? Ask the Marines


When I first came across this video from the online knowledge forum Big Think, I really didn’t know what to expect.  Looking at the subtitle “Start Breaking Some Rules” I was a little apprehensive since I’ve always thought encouraging adolescents to break rules is equivalent to a classroom death sentence. My intrigue overcame suspicion and I watched it anyway.

Wow, I’m glad I did.

In the video we learn of the ‘crucible’, a high-pressure 56-hour obstacle course given to marines during boot camp in which they are placed in physically and mentally grueling situations. In one situation recruits are in a sand pit having to move ropes and logs. They are told to wait for orders from their superiors before doing anything.  But because they and their superiors are wearing gas masks, recruits are rendered powerless to hear and follow the commands of their officers.  They quickly realize they must devise their own path of action relying only on their instinctive judgments. The goal of this training is to cultivate what the trainers call an “internal locus of control,” whereby the marine is motivated to act without direction from others.

This is counterintuitive to me.

I had always assumed that marines are motivated by being told what to do and following orders.  But here recruits are taught to resist the impulse to follow orders.  The underlying psychology here is fascinating: when people are put in positions to break from traditional patterns of thinking, their engines of self-motivation kick into gear and they learn to act with independence and confidence, skills- which for a soldier are indispensable in the chaotic and unpredictable world of warfare.

It got me thinking. How could I translate this lesson on self-motivation into my own classroom with my students?


Well, I don’t have obstacle courses.

But I can ask Big Questions.

Big Questions reveal different perspectives and welcome confusion over a topic. This confusion disrupts thinking and necessitates that students assume the responsibility of crafting their own path to find answers. In this way, like the marines, the students are inspired to cultivate an internal locus of control, which is the seed of self-motivation.

Here’s how this might play out in a government class with the Big Question:  “Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?”  No clear answer here. The students must design their own thinking rules for how to answer it and each student has some important decisions to make:

Should I focus on interest groups or leave them out?

Should I focus my analysis on Congress, the presidency or the courts, or maybe a little bit of each?

Should I limit my analysis to the branches of government or expand the analysis to include how people participate through protest?

Now think back to the Big Questions from previous posts and consider how they might similarly encourage independent decision-making.
Can intolerance be a virtue?
How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?
Is America the Land of Opportunity?

Ultimately, we know what the students will do with Big Questions, at least initially.  Ask the teacher!  But here is where as teachers we must resist giving them orders on how to think about the question. The more we do that, the more students become dependent on us and the less they rely on their own instincts. Yes, the students are in for a struggle to be sure, but like the marines they will emerge from these classroom crucibles with heightened capacities for self-motivation and renewed courage to think for themselves. These skills have inestimable value.

What Big Questions do you think would best inspire students to develop an “internal locus of control”?