Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Using Essential Questions with Intentionality AND Purpose

When visiting classrooms, teachers are regularly using visual reminders (posters, anchor charts, pulling up digital charts) of the big ideas and essential questions that frame the work within different chunks of a unit. Yet, "merely posting the essential questions and occasionally reminding kids of it is pointless: the aim is to use the question to frame specific activities, to provide perspective, " and to focus on the conceptual ideas that are prioritized for the unit. Most important, essential questions bring the critical thinking and reasoning of students to the forefront of inquiry. After all, essential questions are designed for inquiry...and daily classroom experiences should be designed so students skillfully develop new knowledge and evidence to answer questions with reasonable ideas.

This can be a huge leap, especially in social studies, because of traditions that regularly take over a teacher's approach to social studies instruction.  Sadly, social studies still seems to driven by reading non-fiction text and completing activities that provide a break from learning more facts and masses of information. In contrast, students should be:

    • taking time to apply critical thinking skills to analyze and gather the big ideas from multiple sources (charts, graphs, images, maps, primary sources, secondary sources, and visual media),
    • asking additional questions due to interaction with sources (even if those questions are not answered),
    • using newly learned ideas to engage in discipline-specific critical thinking and reasoning (Look at what students should be able to do. This is discipline-specific thinking/work and allows students to engage in the thinking practices and skills of historians, geographers, economists, and engaged/informed citizens), and
    • using newly learned ideas to connect with the big ideas and essential questions (essential questions are designed with students as the audience, and they're designed so students uncover conceptual understandings)
"At every turn, in other words, the essential question looms large in the unit. Students are not only encouraged to keep pondering them" over the course of many days, "but they take notes on the question and routinely remind one another that the essential question is the focus." As a point of self-reflection, ask yourself:
  1. Is the teacher the only one who keeps referring to the essential question? Or, do students continually refer to the essential question, indicating that they know it's a tool central to their learning?
  2. Does the teacher primarily use an essential question so students can point out "answers"? Or, does the teacher use an essential question so students can use what they've learned and also pose additional ideas beyond what they are learning? (Students owning the question is central to a guided release model.)
  3. Is the essential question central to assessment?
  4. Is there a plan whereby the question goes from the teacher's control to the students' control?
I'm going to steal from Grant Wiggins' blog post, and use his Four-Phase Process for Implementing Essential Questions. (For more insights, check out his book Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Students Understanding.) As you read this chart, notice how inquiry with essential questions is supported with design of the unit. Because social studies units frequently contain a mix of complex concepts and skills, consider how you might organize a unit into chunks. Each chunk can address an essential question (or possibly a few related essential questions). To answer that question, students engage with sources and process their learning by using discipline-specific thinking skills AND the essential question(s) that are aligned to conceptual understandings. 

Four-Phase Process for Implementing Essential Questions
(Access a blank version of this template to use in planning)

Finally, as you reflect on essential questions that you choose to drive different chunks of a unit, consider the components of a GOOD essential question (from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins):
  • "A GOOD essential question:
    • is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, meant to spark discussion and debate.
    • calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, and prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
    • points towards important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across disciplines).
    • raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
    • requires support and justification, not just an answer.
    • recurs over time (i.e. the question can and should be re-visited again and again)."
Questions that meet all or most of these criteria qualify as 'essential.' These are questions that are not answerable with finality in a single lesson or brief sentence - and that's the point. Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions, including thoughtful student questions, not just pat answers. They are provocative and generative. By tackling such questions, learners are engaged in 'uncovering' the depth and richness of a topic that might otherwise be obscured by simply 'covering' it." 

** I want to note that significant facets of this post (identified within quotes) come from a post by Grant Wiggins, "On genuine vs bogus inquiry - using EQs properly."

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