Teaching the ALERT processes
   Ask, Listen, Explore, Reflect, Teach

Students today need to learn to live amid vast amounts of information. They need to learn to construct points of view using reason, evidence, and intelligent emotions. Such skills and understandings are best taught by helping them create original presentations, drawing on original research from primary sources.

Through learning expeditions planned to include the ALERT processes, young researchers can explore and contribute to their cultural heritage.

The Heritage Project encourages teachers to organize learning around expeditions, which are in-depth examinations of topics or time periods in which students are expected to read significant books and articles, interview people with special knowledge, and construct their own original points of view in the form of new cultural artifacts (essays, videos, websites) as gifts of scholarship to their communities.

The best way to plan a learning expedition is to think about each of the ALERT processes. These are the processes we go through when engaged in significant learning—that is, learning that moves us to a new level of understanding.

Here are the processes:

Ask: All of us pose and answer questions every day. We wonder what someone else meant by a comment or what clothes to wear to an event. And we all have deeper questions, wondering how we should act in our relationships, pondering possibilities that worry us, or considering what might be the right thing to do in this or that situation. The more school work can be linked to these deeper questions, the more likely students are to engage. When the questions posed in class echo questions students have in their hearts, school comes to life. It matters.

The quality and depth of our learning is limited by the quality and depth of our questions. We all have questions, but someone who is wondering where her friend bought those new shoes is likely to learn different things than someone who is wondering whether Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach to change could be adapted to work with a rigid high school principal.

Essential questions—questions about big and enduring concerns—are the critical link between students’ lives and the curriculum. What is justice? How should we respond to injustice? What is the difference between authority and power? When should we obey and when should we rebel?

These are not questions to which young people are strangers. When they believe such questions are being explored for real, and not simply as classroom exercises in which canned answers are foreordained, their interest is likely to perk up.

Listen: Once we have a question, we deepen our understanding of what’s at stake by “listening” to the historical record. “Listening” should be broadly understood to include all the ways we gather knowledge not just from talk but also from books, music, painting, and architecture. Most often we “listen” by reading.

Expedition members can be introduced to fiction or nonfiction texts complicate or simplify their understanding of their questions, that add to their knowledge the detail needed for accurate thinking, or that present them with points of view that differ from their own.

Whenever practicable, readings should include primary documents. By reading primary documents, stundents draw nearer to actual persons whose thoughts and actions shaped and reflected the past. While secondary sources are invaluable for establishing background and context, reading them without also examining primary documents tends to mystify as well as clarify the past. Only by reading both do we develop an accurate sense of how history is written.

Explore: Students can also gather new information. The simplest way to do this is to include an oral history strand in the expedition.

By enlisting as many people as possible in helping with students’ research, teachers can strengthen the relationship between schooling and community, they can increase and deepen members’ relationships to other people, and they develop motivational strategies more powerful than points and grades.

Students can also make observations, taking field notes then, for example, adding their data to a local data base established to track water quality in a local stream or bird populations in a local forest. They can conduct experiments, adding their findings to the local files. They can document with photographs and essays a local event, a person practicing his or her occupation, or a particular place such as main street at a specific moment in time. Obviously, the better established local knowledge gathering and preserving systems are, the easier this will be to do and the more apparent will be its benefits to expedition members. But starting is not hard. A set of file folders in a file cabinet will do.

Reflect: With whom will members discuss their work along the way? What drafts of notes, essays, or scripts will they create, and who will read and respond to them?

To reflect is simply to think about what we are doing. In the end, thinking is the only learning strategy. Few of us, though, can think very complex thoughts without either talking things through with someone else or writing. So every expedition should include lots of chances for expedition members to discuss what they are doing and to make notes or journal entries to order their thoughts and to preserve them for later revision. Through reflection we can (1) resolve anomalies in our thinking, (2) revise our understanding what has happened and is happening, and (3) construct systematic knowledge.

Teach/Tell/Transform: All students should have chances to teach in every class. It is when we teach others, finding out how to tell what needs to be understood, that we transform ourselves by making new knowledge our own. By asking students to create cultural artifacts to be presented to local audiences, we can support the highest quality learning. A cultural artifact might be a research paper presented at a public forum, a video presented to elementary students, a website presented to a local museum, a radio program or podcast presented to the entire town, or a book presented to the local library.

By returning to the local community with newly formed knowledge, students successfully complete their quest and close their expedition with a sense of earned achievement. By creating gifts of scholarship for an audience beyond the classroom, students more readily learn that standards are not the arbitrary assignments of teachers, but that they flow from the real demands of the real world. A slide presentation to a community audience on local history that is not accurate and interesting simply doesn’t work as well as one that is well-researched and well-crafted.

ALERT was developed by Michael L. Umphrey.

Permalink | Printer Friendly | ©2007 Michael L Umphrey

What is a learning expedition?
   A quest for understanding

Learning expeditions are lived quests for knowledge.

Ronan students in Christa
Umphrey’s English class take notes
at the National Bison Range.

A learning expedition is an in-depth exploration of a topic. Expedition team members all research the same broad questions so they are all on the same quest, but their individual research questions may vary so they are individually accountable.

The goal is to find out what is in the library and then to go beyond that, gathering and constructing new knowledge. Expedition members begin in the library, and then they move out to bring new knowledge back to the community, based on interviews, observations, or experiments. To succeed, expedition members need to study and understand factual information, and they also need to learn and apply broad concepts and ideas.

A good learning expedition has several important characteristics:

  • It has a mission: to bring back new knowledge (starting with a question and a survey of existing knowledge).
  • It requires teamwork. It is both the mission and the group who undertake that mission (teams feature both cooperation and individual accountability).
  • It becomes a story (expedition members are protagonists in their own quest: facing problems, overcoming obstacles, experiencing good fortune, and reaching new insights).
  • It ends in a gift (research is often service, scholarship can be a gift to the community).

Expeditions are readily organized around the ALERT processes, but this acronym is not meant as a linear guide so much as a reminder of the processes involved in getting from one level of understanding to the next.

The written documents (essays, scripts, transcripts) that are created should be added to a public archives. Work that is archived should meet publication standards. Publication is the final step in the writing process, and the standard for publication is perfection (we don’t always meet the standard, but we don’t lower the standard because of that).

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Getting Started in Community-Centered Teaching
   First steps in the Heritage Project

How do we get started?  How do I know who I need to talk to? How will I contact my interviewee? What if they really don’t want to talk to me? How will I know what to say? 

These are all common questions that students pose prior to beginning their projects. To help students achieve a rapport with potential interviewees and to assist with the ASK portion of the ALERT model, students where I teach in Townsend, Montana, often host a public event that will launch our entire project. In doing this, students and community members become acquainted, gain confidence, and set goals for future meetings. The event often sets the tone for the interview and helps students refine their questions and goals. 

Some student/community centered events that have worked for us are:

  • A student-sponsored veterans’ recognition program
  • A community quilt registration night sponsored in conjunction with the State Historical Quilt Project through the Montana State Historical Society
  • A student-sponsored Women’s Tea for the women of Broadwater County
  • A community portrait session in the Community/School library hosted by the students and the Montana Heritage Project
  • A Montana Heritage Project open house featuring completed projects and requests for help in putting together 82 years of Broadwater High School History

All of these events encouraged community members to participate and assisted students to ask more pertinent questions while learning about their local community.

Permalink | Printer Friendly | ©2005 Darlene

Three levels of questions
   The right questions drive the quest

Learning expeditions are organized around three levels of questions: Essential questions, which point toward the large and enduring concerns of human life. Expedition questions, which are specific enough to be answered but broad enough to support extended research. And research questions, which are focused tightly, to allow teams or individuals to find answers.

Learning expeditions are organized around three levels of questions: Essential questions, which point toward the large and enduring concerns of human life. Expedition questions, which are specific enough to be answered but broad enough to support extended research. Research questions, which are focused tightly, to allow teams or individuals to find answers.

While planning expeditions, it’s helpful to think of three levels of questions:

  • essential questions
  • expedition questions
  • research questions


Essential Question: How are our lives shaped by roads and fences? Consider roads and fences metaphorically (routes and boundaries) as well as literally.

Expedition Question: How did changes in the transportation systems affect life in the Sun River Valley in the twentieth century?

Research Question: How were businesses in Simms affected when the highway was re-routed around town?

Essential Questions

Essential questions are important because they connect classroom work to the large and enduring issues that affect our lives. They are the links that make expeditions relevant, connecting the curriculum to actual concerns that young people face.

They also provide an invitation into critical thinking, providing chances to coach young people to think clearly, precisely, accurately, and reasonably about things that matter.

Essential questions are too broad to focus manageble research projects, however. They are best thought of as part of the reflection process. They should be discussed at the beginning of the unit to engage students in important issues, and then they should be brought up regularly as the expedition progresses, to keep students oriented to those important issues.

But before actual research can begin, more narrow and specific expedition questions will need to be formed.

Expedition Questions

Expedition questions are about the size of traditional unit questions. They should be specific enough to be researchable but broad enough to support several teams doing research for however long the expedition is planned to last. Several filters can be used to ensure a question will support an expedition.

Is the question specific enough to be answerable? A question such as “When should we rebel against authority?” is a good essential question in part because it cannot finally be answered. We have opinions about it, and these opinions may keep changing through our lives. But if a student tried to research such a broad question, he or she would probably feel lost in a sea of examples and opinions.

On the other hand, “Why did students in the sixties rebel against college administrators?” is manageable. Though there are many answers to the question, we can find those answers by reading what former student protestors have written or by finding former protestors to interview.

Is the question broad enough to support multiple researchers? A good expedition question ties the expedition members together, so that they are interested in what others are finding because it is related to their own work. Successful expeditions have focused on particular time periods, such 1910 or 1935 or 1968. Within a time period, research teams can tackle such subtopics as main street businesses, home life, school, and agriculture. One class did a study of the history and meaning of quilting in the community, with various teams interviewing individual quilters. Another studied water, examining it from the perspectives of irrigators, artists, Native Americans, and sportsmen.

Do we have access to the resources needed to answer the question? Many questions that are theoretically answerable turn out to be tough to answer because needed materials dont exist or arenҒt available locally. One teacher planned to research reasons why people moved to her town when it was founded. Her plan was to use land deed records to learn who built the first homes, then use obituaries to learn the names of family members, then locate descendents to inquire about letters, diaries or stories that have been passed down. When she began the unit, she was chagrined to learn that a courthouse fire had destroyed the relevant records.

Research Questions

Research questions are focused even more tightly than expedition questions. Though there is no right degree of focus for a successful research project, experience teaches that scholars more often have trouble because their focus is too broad than because it is too narrow. If the essential question is “What role have the Rocky Mountains played in the American psyche?” then an expedition question might ask “Why did people move to the Rocky Mountains in the 1960s?” and an individual research project might focus on asking specific questions of one person who did migrate to the Rocky Mountains in the 1960s.

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Three Ways to misuse essential questions
   Reflecting on what makes a question "essential" helps to use them better

Essential questions are often misused in ways that undercut their value.

1. Use the phrase “essential question” carelessly

“Are frog populations increasing or descreasing in Mission Creek?” is not an essential question, though it may be a perfectly good research question. “Why are people moving into Yoknapatawpha County?” is not an essential question. “What is the best fly to catch brown trout in the Musselshell River?” is not an essential question.

Education is notoriously trendy, and each new trend is heralded by a new vocabulary. Many experienced teachers defend themselves by developing the habit of changing their jargon without changing their practice. As one veteran teacher told me, “You can call it whatever you want. I know what I’m going to do.”

The downside, of course, is that we can become quite resistant to the benefits that might follow from reflecting on the value of new approaches. Even worse, we might develop habits of sloppy language. Sloppy language can never be separated from sloppy thought. Such habits are antithetical to sound education.

Years ago I was reviewing a handout a teacher had given her students, laying out her disciplinary plan. She had received training in Rudolf Dreikurs’ “natural and logical consequences.” Dreikurs’ main point was that rewards and punishments are ineffective, and that they should be replaced with consequences that flow naturally or logically from a child’s behavior.  Dreikurs specifically warned that adults who “use logical consequences as punishment. . .thereby forfeit the effectiveness of this method.” (Children: the Challenge, Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D., 1987, Penguin)

The teacher’s handout consisted of a list of prohibited behaviors followed by a list of “rewards” and a list of “consequences.” The apparent effect of her training in Dreikurs’ methods was that she began to use “consequences” as a euphemism for “punishments,” though this was precisely what Dreikurs had warned against.

And, of course, she was not the only one. I’m not sure what effect Rudolf Dreikurs has had on teachers’ actual practices, but he has succeeded in reducing honest talk of punishment in schools. Kids who are punished are not fooled by being told detention is a consequence, but they do learn that school is sometimes an Orwellian sort of place.

Teachers who use jargon in a willy nilly way, without attention to what the words actually mean risk corrupting rather than educating young minds. The best teachers say what they mean and mean what they say. I think any educaton that isn’t committed to truth and honesty is corrupting.

This is worth thinking about in the way we discuss “essential” questions.

The term “essential question” was introduced into the conversation about schooling to address real concerns. You may agree or disagree with whether the concerns were important or whether organizing instruction around essential questions is the best way to address them. But if you decide to use the term, you should try to use it meaningfully.

Essential questions were introduced into the Heritage Project as a tool to help link local research projects to larger national and global concerns, as well as to the state and national standards. We hoped linking student research and writing to big ideas and enduring concerns would help lead students to reflect on how timeless dilemmas are present in the most ordinary of circumstances. This remains our goal.

Essential questions are a useful to guide teaching aimed at increasing students’ understanding of enduring quetions, but all teaching does not have that aim. Sometimes, the objective of teaching is to pass on established facts or to teach students particular skills, such as how to plan a scientific experiment or how to assess the credibility of information sources. It is not necessary to link every teaching move to an essential question.

Use essential questions when they are appropriate and then use them thoughtfully.

Wiggins and McTighe (Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, 2001, Prentice Hall Inc) suggest the following ‘filters’ for deciding what questions are essential. Essential questions:

  • represent a big idea having enduring value beyond the classroom
  • reside at the heart of the discipline (involve ‘doing’ the subject)
  • require uncoverage (of abstract or often misunderstood ideas)
  • offer potential for engaging students.

2. Ask big, essential questions but then don’t provide significant readings or experiences that shed light on them

It’s easy to toss out some lofty sounding questions, allow students to say whatever comes to mind, and then to call it good. But if that’s how essential questions are used, it’s probably not very good. Such discussions probably have little educational value.

Good essential questions, because they go to the heart of academic disciplines and because they are enduring, have had a lot said about them by very good minds. Students shold read some of seminal texts that deal with the question.

When essential questions have been formed, part of a teacher’s preparation should be locating appropriate readings that examine various aspects of those questions. If at some point in the process, students do not read such texts their misconceptions, ignorances, biases, and superstititions are likely to remain intact. They may even be fortifiied by the student having had a chance to declare them publicly.

Using the topic of Civil Disobedience as an example, University of Montana professors James Lopach and Jean Luckowski point out that leaving students to synthesize their own answers can leave them with serious misunderstandings intact:

. . . by emphasizing that children are their own measure of things, teachers shirk their responsibility as subject-matter experts. Students with a faulty moral compass and nothing but half-baked opinions come away from the classroom thinking that laws are simply inconvenient obstacles to achieving personal goals.

“When is it right to engage in Civil Disobedience?” This might indeed work as a good essential question. But too often students are left to their own wisdom to answer such questions. Critiquing a PBS lesson plan, Lopach and Luckowski note that

Missing from the plan is a definition of civil disobedience or mention of the four essential components of civil disobedienceor even the three components that they had identified in the earlier lesson. Nor does the lesson discuss the difference between a fundamental principle and a personal desire or between legal protest, civil disobedience, and purely criminal activity, much less the threats that each poses to a democratic society. In these and other lessons, the teacher is directed to place the burden on the student to דconstruct his or her own understanding of civil disobedienceԗa notion that contradicts the beliefs of the most profound protesters.

3. Suggest that having an opinion about the essential question is what is important

The point of using essential questions in instruction is to develop understandings. Opinions matter far less. Why did Martin Luther King act as he did? What were the risks to him, to his followers, and to society? Why did various people oppose him? A student who can give answers to these questions derived from reason and evidence has gained important understandings.

But a student who simply has an opinion about a question such as “Did Martin Luther King do the right thing?” may not have much. Without a clear teaching strategy to be sure students understand what is at stake in the way we answer essential questions, the opinions students form will probably not be particularly meaningful. If they feel contented with opinions that are not based on understanding, the strategy may have done more harm than good.

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