Big Questions

Students often identify passion as one of the most important traits of strong teachers. The teacher who not only shares his passion, but ignites the passion in his students can foster deep, permanent learning.

Sometimes a teacher’s passion may border on the obscure, especially to a group of freshman students. For example, the musician who is excitedly grappling with the differences between the Mixolyian and Aeolian modes of a major scale may lose his “History of Jazz” students if he shares that specific passion for very long. But if he backs up and recalls what sparked his fascination with jazz in the first place, he may find a more essential question such as: What IS Jazz? Or even, Do humans need music? THOSE are Big Questions that may engage his students more readily.

Big Questions tap into both the students’ and the teacher’s passion in a discipline. Inviting students into an exploration of your discipline’s Big Questions keeps their curiosity alive and helps frame teaching as a collaboration, not as a one-way delivery of information. Students who are allowed to be curious feel that they are in control of their own education, which in turn makes them motivated and ready to learn. Big Questions also help us, the teachers, remember that we are still on a journey of learning.

To identify your big questions, forget about your students for a while. Think about yourself as an artist, or a writer, or an art historian. What are the essential questions that drive you to learn more in your field? That drive your profession? That keep you up at night? What were the questions behind those questions that started you on the artistic, professional, or academic path you are on now?

Chances are, these same questions are the ones that your students are curious about.

Here are a few examples of Big Questions:

What makes something “art?” (The Art History professor in the 2003 film Mona Lisa Smile asks this of her students.)

Can people avoid wars? Could different actions have prevented World War II? (To frame a U.S. history unit on Wilson’s actions after World War I)

How can you tell the difference between good and bad research? (To frame a course on Biological Clocks)

What can color do? (Interior Architecture instructor, Academy of Art University)

How can we reconcile the two seemingly opposing concepts of “green” and “marketing”? Is it possible? (Green Marketing course instructor, Academy of Art University)

Using Big Questions in a classroom:

  • Engage students in the question at the beginning of the semester. Share your own excitement about the question, including areas you have explored and areas you are still learning about.
  • Have students write reflection papers or short in-class responses to the Big Question(s) at three points in the semester. Collect the writing, and at the end of the course, review how students’ thinking has evolved. Have students identify what they want to learn next.
  • A math teacher (cited in What the Best College Teachers Do) invites students to interrupt class at any time to ask “Who gives a damn?” Then he stops to explain how the current point relates to the larger questions of the course.
  • The teacher of the Biological Clocks course, noted above, began his course with an anecdote about a $3 million publicly funded research project on cow urination practices. (Do they prefer to urinate before entering, while crossing, or after exiting a stream?). He posed the question: Was this a waste of money? How do you decide?

Showing your students that you are still curious and that you are still learning is an inspiring model for them. Inviting them into these disciplinary explorations helps them see themselves not as “students” waiting to be told that they can graduate and join the ranks of designers, writers, or photographers, but as active participants in a discipline


Best Teachers Institute Slideshow: The Promising Syllabus
June 16-18, 2010 Ken Bain

What The Best College Teachers Do. 2004. Harvard University Press.