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.
Would I have turned out differently had I been born at a different time under different circumstances?
Underneath all of these big questions lurks an even bigger one: Is my life guided by free will or determinism? Open to interpretation and filled with murky definitions– this question has everything.
What makes the question so vexing is that it pits our common sense against our logic. It seems obvious that we have the freedom to act. But then, when we rewind our decisions and really think, it seems like every action we take is determined by the action taken just before it. Our logic tells us there is no way it could have happened any other way.
High school history teacher and Socrates in the Social Studies student Justin Riskus provokes this thousands-year-old Big Question to teach World War II. He begins in an unorthodox way by showing If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff.
The narrator intones “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk.” Once that action occurs, the mouse must ask for a straw and then a napkin etc… Each action the mouse takes seems completely determined by the action taken just before. At the end, in a twist of irony, the mouse asks for a glass of milk and then a cookie to go with it, and we are back where we started.
Justin uses this story to stoke student interest in the Allies’ appeasement policy towards Hitler leading up to WWII. There too we see a seemingly endless string of determined events, piling up on each other leading to one of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen. A voice in our head asks “Was WorldWarII determined to happen?” Justin cleverly uses the behavior of a mouse to inspire students to call into question whether history itself is caught in the iron grip of determinism or whether leaders have the free will to break history’s chain of events.
Employing a Socratic Seminar, Justin then coaxes students to consider the moral responsibility of modern day presidents.
Justin has drawn out an age-old philosophical question and looked at it with fresh eyes. In doing so, his students are inspired to think about the choices humans must make in the service of preventing evil.
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 counter-intuitive 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?
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?
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”?
Perfection is a danger. Just ask Benjamin Franklin and social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg.
Why is it at the end of the year we become possessed with feelings of inadequacy about not doing enough for students? It’s like there’s this voice in the sky reminding us of the lessons we never got to, standards we failed to meet, paperwork left incomplete and lives untouched. Things didn’t turn out as we planned. It wasn’t perfect.
…many of our students are suffering the same feelings of regret thinking about the homework they should have done and the adult expectations they failed to meet. Added to their stress is the pressure of test scores and for seniors the torture of college decisions. The pressure to be perfect comes from all angles.
The quest for perfection is a monster that debilitates us and diminishes our capacity to grow into the best version of ourselves. Social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg drew upon this psychology to construct a lesson featuring Benjamin Franklin, somebody who was able to overcome the alluring spell of perfectionism in the toughest of circumstances.
She begins, innocently enough, with a question:
What makes something perfect?
So simple yet so profound, and it meets all three of our criteria.
After gathering students’ responses, she shows the story “Ish” by Peter H. Reynolds
Was there ever something you stopped doing because you were not doing it perfectly?
Can art be perfect? Who decides this?
What does it mean that Ramon’s later paintings/art were “-ish”?
Having personalized a definition of perfection and considered their own personal experiences, students are poised to make the historical connection. They read Benjamin Franklin’s closing speech to the Constitutional Convention and shape responses to a series of questions including this big one: If Franklin knows that the Constitution is flawed, why does he still push for ratification?
After discussion, the lesson concludes with students articulating the key positions of the anti-federalists and federalists as they debate the pitfalls and possibilities of the new Constitution. Students then must decide whether or not they would ratify it given its imperfections.
What I love about this lesson is not only do students gain a comprehensive understanding of a seminal historical event but, more importantly, they are encouraged to consider on a personal level the idea that imperfection can be a virtue. Using Benjamin Franklin and the formation of the Constitution as a model, students and teachers learn that it is okay to turn away from the prison of perfection sometimes in the service of smart, responsible and practical decision-making.
Consider other periods of US history where you could explore the value of compromise and living with imperfection:
Manifest Destiny and westward expansion
Lessons like this unearth a great benefit of Big Questions: it’s not just that these questions get us to think deeply; it’s that they can cause us to feeldeeply, and to moveus to act in ways that make us better people.
Ahh… Philosophy- that class you may have taken- or avoided- way back when. It seemed so abstract, out-of-touch and inaccessible. That’s probably because many of philosophy’s questions seemed so big that just thinking about answering them was intimidating. Questions like:
What is good and what is evil? And how do I know it?
Is my life guided by my free choices or is it determined by my past?
What is the meaning of life?
Complexity aside, since philosophy is all about Big Questions, maybe we can enlist it as the perfect ally in our quest to bring more inquiry into our classrooms.
Below are some resources in philosophy I’ve found to be imminently valuable to motivate Big Questions. You don’t need much experience in the subject to appreciate them as they are geared towards the general audience.
Resource #1: Children’s books– We’ve already seen how philosophical questions inside children’s stories can inspire Big Questions.
Resource #3: School of Life. This YouTube channel creates animated videos connected to philosophy, psychology, history and other humanities-based subjects. Some promote more adult themes but many, especially the ones connected to philosophy and psychology, are creative, entertaining and tied to many Big Questions like Who am I? I have found these videos to be wonderful tools to stoke student curiosity.
Resource #4: The Pig that Wants to be Eaten. Baggini, Julian. Here is a collection of 100 philosophical thought experiments including many of the best known, such as “The Ship of Theseus”. The thought experiments are presented in an accessible way and Baggini offers a one to two page analysis after each scenario, in addition to listing citations to explore original sources.