How Can Reading SuperFreakonomics Save Education?

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life InsuranceImagine walking into a Chemistry classroom and seeing the following on the chalkboard: 

Today's Agenda: Chemical Reactions

Now, picture this on the board instead:

Today's Question: What happens when I mix these two things together?

Which would grab you and more importantly, which would grab most students, thus enticing them to become engaged and motivated for class that day? I suspect the latter, and it dawned on me even more after reading SuperFreakonomics just how effective essential questions can be.

Why Do I Get So Hooked on Reading These Books?
In both Freakonomics and the follow-up SuperFreakonomics, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner sprinkle in questions such as "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?" or "How is a Street Prostitute Like a Department Store Santa?" all throughout their written work. Now if you're like me, you become instantly curious with such questions, and you want to dive into the books to find the answers. In the classroom, essential questions can act as similar eye-catching, thought-provoking, head-scratching pieces designed to hook students on the day's lesson or the course's current unit of study. A properly created essential question should not have an easy answer, should be broad enough to cover multiple topics of study, and should inspire students to become active thinkers in class.

How is Freakonomics Just Like My Chemistry class?
With a cleverly crafted essential question, teachers can engage their students to think about the core concepts in ways that apply to their current interests. Although Dubner and Levitt often provide a short answer to many of their included questions, there still remains the in-depth analysis and thought provoking conversations that readers will hopefully engage in after completing the book. As a former science teacher, I would tease out topics with questions such as "What's so periodic about the periodic table?" and I would often answer questions with more questions (yeah, I was one of those teachers.) In science, the idea of discovery and searching for answers is inherent, but the same process can easily be applied to other subjects. Thought experiments can transform a dull history class into an engaging one in seconds.

Can Essential Questions Save Education?
I will admit that when I first started learning about essential questions, I was not that impressed. The concept seemed overly simple, and so much work and emphasis were placed on developing only a few sentences. After reading both Freakonomics books, I gained a new appreciation for how essential questions can be used in class. Although they are nothing new to the education scene, if essential questions can successfully hook students into lending their attention to the subject, they've already achieved a big part of the overall goal of motivating our students. Further, if the questions can inspire additional questioning, motivated research, or stimulated discussion, then they have the ability to do far more. At the price of a few sentences, the use of essential questions in class can be deemed a quick and cheap fix similar to those mentioned in the the second book.

More information about Freakonomics can be found on

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