Dan has been teaching high school AP Government, US history and philosophy in the Chicagoland area since 1993. He is a manager of a blog on Big Questions (www.socratesquestions.com) and works with the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) to develop and instruct online courses for social studies teachers. Twitter: @dmfouts
1. What prompted you to start a blog devoted to big questions?
Growing up in a family which encouraged philosophical exploration of ideas, I’ve always loved the magic of a good question to inspire discussion and give birth to great ideas. Teaching, then, became that perfect forum in which to share a love of questions with others. Accumulation of my own classroom experiences, combined with a childhood appreciation for philosophy and deep thinking, motivated me to start the Socrates questions blog. Seeing retirement on the horizon, I wanted to give back to the profession by memorializing my ideas and the ideas of the amazing educators with whom I’ve worked over my career. In addition, I want the blog to be a place teachers can learn about professional development opportunities geared towards inquiry-based teaching.
2. How do you use the big questions approach in the high school classes you teach?
I use big questions to organize individual lessons, units and even entire courses. For example, in my philosophy class I organize the entire course around questions like “how should I live my life?” and “who am I?”, both of which generate vibrant discussion as they relate directly to identity and appropriate behavior, issues on which high school students have very strong opinions. In US history I ask questions like “how does American history reflect both the achievement and failure of the American Dream?” Or as we read about W.E.B Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King during a civil rights movement, I would have the students track a question like “What is the best way to gain respect?”
In all settings the question acts as an anchor to focus students on some philosophical idea that is allergic to simplicity and clear understanding. Learning in this context becomes a recursive experience whereby students and teacher revisit common themes repeatedly in different settings, thereby deepening learning and understanding over time. Through this process, we lose the feelings of comfort of having clear answers but we gain confidence in our capacities to think critically.
3. What are some of your favorite big questions?
Questions which rattle the soul of teenagers and adults alike. That group includes questions dealing with morality: What is the right thing to do? Can intolerance be a virtue? Is the responsibility of government to help people directly or encourage them to help themselves?
Any question that confuses, has multiple perspectives and begs for clearer definitions of words is a question I enjoy. Most importantly, the question must generate sustained interest and connect directly to the lives of the people answering it. A great question taps into our common humanity in a way that gives life meaning.