Sometimes good teaching involves misdirection. You start with a topic that seems unrelated to the class, drift to another activity and then to another. If all goes well, (a big assumption!) your students are emotionally and intellectually invested in learning. High school history teacher Justin Riskus tries his hand at misdirection in a lesson on U.S. humanitarian interventions.
He starts by having the students read a provocative chapter from Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher titled “You Choose, You Lose“. The chapter itself has nothing to do with history but everything to do with making excruciating choices on how to prioritize the saving of human lives. Picking up on this idea of making choices, Justin slowly introduces two humanitarian crises in which the U.S. had to make hard choices about whether or not to intervene to save lives: the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict.
Students are assigned to a crisis and put into groups to explore it. During their group work they fill out this chart. Discussion ensues and the Big Question is rolled out:
Is the United States morally obligated to intervene in global humanitarian crises?
What started as a mysterious thinking activity on making choices ends in a profound moral discussion about the proper role the U.S. should play on the world stage. What I like about this Big Question is that it is written as if there is a yes or no response, yet once answered, immediately begs the irresistible follow-up question WHY? It demands that the students think critically to generate criteria for when intervention might be justified. As an added bonus, Big Questions like this which center around morality are very portable in that you can carry them into other units of study and offer fresh opportunities for exploration.
Teaching through misdirection with Big Questions has another hidden benefit– it slows down the learning process for teacher and students. This slowing down- as we saw in the last post– gives students and teachers valuable opportunities to deepen understanding over time.
Check out a few other lessons created by Justin Riskus: Can War Be Glorious? and Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old… and counting.