Let’s imagine what a course with Big Questions might look like

classroom

Rewind back to August.

Imagine it’s the second day of school. You’re finished with the rules and procedures, seating charts and get-to-know-you activities. Standing in front of your students, you’re ready to set the tone and framework for the next nine months of instruction.

You pass out this note

Welcome!

The purpose of this course is to struggle with the The Big Questions of US history.

At first these questions will confuse you. They are filled with unclear definitions and open to many different interpretations and seem to have no clear answer.

Your job is to monitor these questions throughout the year and slowly craft sophisticated responses to them as we move through the different units of the course.

In June, your final exam will be to choose one of the Big Questions (which could be one that YOU created independently), develop a thesis statement, and answer it convincingly using the content learned in the course as your evidence.

There are a few exciting things going on here:

  1. You’ve established Big Questions to be the most important component of the curriculum. This tells students that asking them is valuable.
  2. You’ve set struggle as the expectation of the course. This is a subtle message that learning will be difficult but still worth pursuing. This is the growth mindset.
  3. You’ve honored the importance of skills while at the same time preserved the integrity of content.  And now you can discriminate your content based on whether or not it fits under one or more of the Big Questions.
  4. You’ve taught students that learning spans across units, instead of being confined within them.
  5. Students get ownership. They decide what content fits where; they determine how the content fits; they can even develop their own Big Question and track it throughout the year. In this way you have provided the context for student self-motivation.
  6. You’ve given students their final exam   on the second day of class! For the next nine months there is no confusion as to where the class is headed. This focuses you and the students like a laser on what is to be learned and why.

Admittedly,  it would be much more of a challenge to do this in an AP course with a rigid curriculum and content expectations. But even then you could have Big Questions in the backdrop and use them for enriching discussions.

Could YOU organize your course using Big Questions?  If so, what might it look like?  Share some examples of Big Questions you would use for your subject area.

Can Big Questions motivate Students? Ask the Marines

Rules

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?

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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”?

 

Teachers: We can’t be perfect, and we shouldn’t try to be

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Perfection is a danger. Just ask Benjamin Franklin

As teachers we know all too well the feeling of ending a class, week or year with feelings of inadequacy about not doing enough for our students. It’s like there is this voice in the sky reminding us of the standards we failed to meet, the paperwork left incomplete and the lives we were powerless to impact. We know in theory that avoiding mistakes should always be our goal but then feel that striving for perfection often comes at a significant cost to our well being.

Students suffer the same malady in the form of homework, parental and coach expectations, test scores and college decisions. The pressure to be perfect comes from all angles. They get stressed out and we the teachers often end up being the recipients of their angst and frustrations.

Social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg drew upon this basic truth of human psychology to construct a lesson featuring somebody who was able to overcome the need for perfection under the toughest of circumstances: Benjamin Franklin.

She begins with the Big 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

Students then reflect:

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 prepped 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 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 virtue of imperfection.  Using Benjamin Franklin and the formation of the Constitution as a model, students and teachers learn that it is okay to turn away from perfection sometimes in the service of smart, responsible decision-making.

This lesson unearths a great benefit of Big Questions: it’s not just that these questions get us to think deeply; it’s that they move us to act in ways that make us better people.

( Chelsea Alsberg: Student summer 2017 Socrates in the Social Studies )

Download Full Lesson

Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a child.

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It seems paradoxical but it’s not.

Children’s stories capture our imagination, make us wonder, and reveal the inherent mysteries of life in the simplest and most profound ways.

They can also motivate teachers and students of all grade levels and subjects to ask Big Questions.

You’ve already seen how the Araboolies of Liberty Street by Sam Swope can be used to teach the Civil Rights Movement and the 1st Amendment and how Swimmy by Leo Lionni can be used to teach the meaning of bravery in the Abolitionist Movement.

But there’s so much more.

The University of Washington Center for Philosophy of Children has a treasure trove of over 100 children’s stories along with innovative ideas on how to use these stories to introduce Big Questions in the classroom. Most of the stories can be adapted seamlessly to fit the middle and high school audience.

Consider these stories and the Big Questions they inspire:
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The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?

 

BigBox

 

The Big Box by Toni Morrison
Who gets to decide who is free? or What does it mean to have freedom?

 

 

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If you Give a Mouse a Cookie  by Laura Numeroff
Are historical events determined to happen or can humans change the course of history through their choices?

 

You might think you can’t use children’s stories, especially in a high school class! It’s too basic and simplistic. The kids will think you are insulting their intelligence.

Dispense with this thinking! Each time I’ve introduced a children’s story, I have found most of my students alert, intrigued and ready to think. This is because I’m drawing upon something familiar and creating a safe space for them to think. It’s the perfect entry point for asking Big Questions.

The best part is that you can come back to the children’s story repeatedly as you work your way through different units, all the while reinforcing the importance of the original Big Questions the story inspired. This strategy would be particularly valuable in an English class with a novel.

What children’s story do YOU use (or could you use) in your classroom?

Next Post: Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a Philosopher

 

Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a philosopher.

Thinker

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:

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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 #2:  The 60-Second Philosopher by Andrew Pessin contains mini-thought exercises organized by chapter which engage students in philosophical themes relevant to a myriad of disciplines- social studies, science and English to name a few. We’ve already seen this book used in previous posts within the lessons Can  intolerance be a Virtue? and Is America the Land of Opportunity?

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.

Resource #5: PLATO-Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization:  The Philosopher’s Toolkit has a collection of lesson plans to inspire philosophical discussions within a myriad of subject areas including math, literature, social studies and science. Each lesson indicates the audience for which it is best suited.

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Warning! Once your students start thinking philosophically, there is no turning back!

Do you use philosophy in any way to inspire Big Questions?  If so, how?

Big Question: How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?

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What on earth does the Araboolies of Liberty Street children’s story by Sam Swope have to do with the Civil Rights Movement and the 1st Amendment?

Well, according to high school social studies teacher Julie Dickinson, a lot.

In the story we meet General Pinch and his wife who try to expel their crazy, freedom-loving neighbors– the Araboolies. In a bizarre twist of events, the Araboolies try to protect their own freedoms by persuading the army that it is the Pinch family who are the real outsiders. The Araboolies, then, become the oppressors and the Pinch family finds itself fighting for its freedoms.

What a mess!  But what an opportunity to teach students of all ages about the dangers of freedom and oppression.

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After listening to the story, students apply the concepts of freedom and oppression to the famous Little Rock Nine event using this chartSoon they begin to see just how challenging it is to celebrate and accept differences in a free, democratic society.


Julie meets the Big Question criteria:

  • The question sows confusion over the definition of freedom by drawing attention to its inherent dangers.
  • Using the characters of a children’s story as vehicles, students begin to see the characters of US history through different perspectives.

I see natural applications of this Big Question in government with Supreme Court cases in which a community is compelled to suppress the 1st Amendment rights of a controversial group and that group fights back in court, as in National Socialist Party v Skokie (1977) and Synder v. Phelps (2011).

How could you use this Big Question?

Download Full Lesson

Next Post– Big Question: Can intolerance be a virtue?  Huh?

US History Big Question: Is America the Land of Opportunity?

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Well of course it is!

But is it?

This lesson, designed by history teacher Melissa Kinsey from Washington, Illinois, explores the interplay between American history and human perception. As she describes, sometimes what we perceive to be true depends on who is perceiving it.

Melissa starts with a provocative chapter from Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher titled the Eyeball of the Beholder, and then directs students to this intriguing website on face illusions. With unique perceptions in mind, students explore how different groups (Native Americans and English colonists) viewed a common historical event– the settlement of America. They document their findings on this chart.

What I really like about Melissa’s Big Question is that it addresses three important criteria.


  • It confuses.  Many students probably walk into this lesson assuming that America is the Land of Opportunity. That assumption is now shaken by a Big Question.  
  • It reveals multiple perspectives. The question reveals that a static one-sided answer does not exist. Truth, then, must be seen through the eyes of different historical actors.  
  • It begs for clearer definitions. Opportunity for whom? Opportunity to do what? What does opportunity actually mean? The word ‘opportunity’ demands a clear definition.

As Melissa suggests, teachers can revisit this very same Big Question in subsequent units – the American Revolution, Civil War, Manifest Destiny for instance- to explore further the relationship between history and human perception.

Download full lesson

Next Post– Big Question: How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?