Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu never met Martin Luther King but if he had, he’d probably have some pretty good things to say about him.
Here’s the 3-Step process applied to a famous document of the Civil Rights Movement.
Step One: Philosopher Quote
Before finding the Lao Tzu’s quote, I was thinking about the theme of leadership— not just any type of leadership but one that values humility, grace and harnessing the people’s energy towards meaningful change. Then I was thinking about the many primary sources which explore this theme; one that came to mind is the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
So I wanted to find a quote which blended this theme of leadership with the type of leadership MLK was exhibiting in his letter. Lao Tzu came to the rescue: “To lead the people, walk behind them“
I considered the claim that Lao Tzu was making:
Claim: leadership is about following. Humility is an important aspect to being a good leader.
Step Two: Counterclaim
To prepare for the conversation with the students, I started thinking about counterclaims which pushed against what Lao Tzu was saying.
Example Counterclaim: leadership is about a strong person setting the agenda and convincing people to ‘get in line’. This has always been the traditional understanding of leadership.
Here’s a think-aloud I did on the different ways students may react to this quote…
Students know who the leaders of the school are. They are probably under the impression that these student leaders are strong in the more traditional sense in that other students follow their lead because they are ‘cool’. Students would have lots to say about what makes somebody ‘cool’. Is it dress? personality? Then imagine the conversation gaining tension as leadership is tied to the notion of giving up power. What is gained by doing that? Perhaps students know people in their lives who do that.
Step Three: Essential question
I Slowed down and thought about the Letter to a Birmingham Jail. I needed to design an essential question which connected this primary source to the philosophical theme of leadership and the Lao Tzu quote. Here’s one I came up with: Do humble people make good leaders?
I had all of the tools to generate memorable conversations: A provocative quote, interesting theme, timeless primary source and an essential question which connected it to my curriculum.
Here’s how I am thinking about implementation:
- Start students with the Lao Tzu quote to inspire a general conversation about leadership.
- Share the primary source and essential question.
- Have a conversation on the Letter to a Birmingham Jail as it relates to the essential question. Here’s one idea: I could have the students do a short writing assignment where they answered the essential question using MLK’s letter as evidence for their positions.
Are you a free-thinking teacher? If you want to learn this process in an online course , check out Teach Different with Essential Questions. I’m excited to be part of the team that instructs it.)
Written by Dan Fouts from Socrates Questions