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?

 

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What does a Big Question look like?

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Some say “Essential
Some say “Compelling
Others say “Open-Ended

I say “Big Questions” recaptures the spirit of the Socrates way. Though Socrates made asking questions seem deceptively simple, it’s actually a complex process. Here are three essential criteria to creating Big Questions.

Criteria #1- Big Questions confuse   

Big Questions cause confusion, throwing off comfortable ways of thinking. This is the critical first step in learning. Lack of clarity, though, becomes an asset that sets in motion the process of thinking through a complex problem. The inherent confusion of Big Questions motivates us to find an answer.

Criteria #2– Big Questions reveal multiple perspectives.

There is typically more than one way to answer Big Questions. Lack of certainty is again an asset, positioning us intellectually to develop logical arguments to convince others towards our perspective. Seeing multiple perspectives cultivates a spirit of empathy and tolerance for difference.

Criteria #3– Big Questions beg for clear definitions

Hiding inside many Big Questions are words with messy definitions that are often neglected. For example, “Does American history reflect the achievement or failure of the American Dream?” Notice the phrase “American Dream” requires immediate and extensive investigation. The American Dream for a union worker, business owner or farmer will be very different. Socrates demonstrated that the starting point for critical thinking is a precise definition of words.

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In the next blog post I’ll showcase a creative Big Questions lesson from middle school history teacher Melissa Kinsey to demonstrate how all of these criteria work together.

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Is America the Land of Opportunity?

 

 

A Blog on Big Questions

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David – The Death of Socrates

Why would people work hard if there were no rewards or consequences?

Can one ever truly be happy?

All my life I’ve been fascinated with Big Questions. The fascination intensified in college as a political science and philosophy major when I read about Socrates who, as history tells us, made a living walking around asking people questions. His questions were penetrating, inspired multiple perspectives of understanding and often left his conversation partners scratching their heads in confusion. Rather than assume he knew the truth, Socrates humbly revealed the ignorance of others, and paid the ultimate penalty. Continue reading “A Blog on Big Questions”