Reflection: learning to ask essential questions
   Questions and questioning may be the most powerful technologies of all. Jamie McKenzie

By focusing on the enduring questions that lie at the heart of various academic disciplines, we are also focusing on issues that individual students wrestle with. Thus, essential questions provide the link between students’ lives and the curriculum.

Though an expedition will normally focus on questions that can be answered--Why did people move to Montana during the 1960s? How has the use of the land changed in this valley over the past 100 years? What adventuresome journeys did our grandparents make, and what do they think they meant?--good expeditions continually discuss and reflect on a set of essential questions.

In Corvallis, Phil Leonardi’s classes inquire into how and why the physical and cultural landscape has changed through time. In Ronan, Christa Umphrey’s classes are organized around these questions: How did our community and society change in the 1960s? How was the Mission Valley influenced by social forces in the 1960s? Why do people rebel? And in Simms, various strands of the project led by teacher Dorothea Susag are held together by this overarching question: How do popular myths obstruct our understanding of underlying realities?

Such questions meet the criteria for essential questions that Grant Wiggins described In Understanding by Design:

1. They point to the heart of a discipline such as history or science. They are the “big ideas” framed as questions. They are essential because they point toward core issues in the different disciplines and lead toward enduring understandings. The big ideas at the heart of literary studies, for example, include the belief that our opinions should be based on reason and evidence and that through vicarious experience we can expand our knowledge and understanding.

2. They are arguable. They have no obvious right answers. They can be pondered, explored, discussed, and lived with.

3. They recur in professional work and in life, because they grow out of important conceptual and philosophical issues.

4. They engage student interest and can function as a doorway to inquiry.

Teachers often begin unit planning by listing the activities that will be done. If these activities aren’t at some point selected and shaped by three or four overarching questions, the unit will inevitably lack focus. The key questions frame the sequence of activities and they provide structure to the lessons, the field work and note taking, and the culminating scholarly products through which students exhibit their answers.

Project-based teaching easily degenerates into a series of disconnected activities. When students experience a unit as a smorgasbord, they often have trouble understanding the big ideas the unit should have uncovered. “Why are we doing this?” they wonder. Faced with a series of activities, they may not be particularly interested in learning what records are kept in courthouses or government archives. But when they can be engaged in a few key questions, the use of such resources becomes easier to see.

Organizing instruction around returning at key points to a set of essential questions makes the unit’s intellectual challenge more clear, more coherent, and more engaging for students. The essential questions for the expedition should be posted in the room, they should recur in class discussions, and they should appear at the top of handouts.

Though most teachers pose lots of questions, many are leading questions rather than essential questions. Leading questions can be answered by finding the facts. They are intended to uncover content, or to prompt recall, or to get facts on the table. “Who started this town and when?” Often, they are merely rhetorical or thinly disguised statements. Though such questions can be useful, a steady stream of them stifles thoughtfulness and engaged inquiry.

Just as good stories raise questions in the listener’s mind but delay providing answers, good teaching often introduces important questions that will not be answered right away. To create a sense of anticipation and to help them make sense out of the sequence of activities, students should encounter the big ideas and the overarching questions as early in the unit as possible. Event can follow event, as naturally as a story unfolds.

It’s true that the essential questions are sometimes too abstract and inaccessible to “hook” students at the beginning, so more specific unit questions can be used to organize particular content and inquiry. The essential question, “Who is a friend?” might lead to a unit question, “In A Separate Peace, is Gene a true friend of Phineaus’?”

Of course, the overarching questions won’t work well as research questions for individual writing projects. They are far too big for that. Rather, they provide the organizing motive for the entire class, driving the readings and discussions. When students begin forming their own research questions, the essential and unit questions serve as the background and context for their narrower inquiries. While the class may think together about the essential question, “Why do people rebel?” an individual student might interview one person who protested the Vietnam War, not attempting to provide a comprehensive answer to the big question but shedding light on one aspect of it.

The main reason all this matters is that students need to wrestle with big ideas, but big ideas are seldom learned through lectures. Instead, they come to be understood by being explored, questioned, taken apart and put back together, used, reorganized, and confirmed. To reach understanding, students need to personalize the questions, sharing examples and experiences that bring the questions to life.

Without engaging big ideas through such active inquiry, most students will end up with a hodgpodge of opinions and cliches rather than knowledge and understanding. Teachers need to do more than state what is known. They need to design inquiries that allow students to see how knowledge is developed and upon what evidence it is based.

Questions and questioning are the tools that lead to insight and understanding.

Here are suggestions for essential questions:

Whose story is it? From what point of view is this document or textbook written?

What principles are in conflict? Which is most fundamental?

Whose decision should it be?

What is friendship? Who are your true friends?

What is the relationship between popularity and greatness in literature?

Is there such a thing as a typical “American character?” A typical “Montana character?”

Why did (do) people come to the New World? To Montana?

What is the American Dream (is it fact or fiction)?

How has changing technology changed society?

What is a hero?

What is the role of government?

What is the role of leadership during times of great change?

What is freedom? Who is most free?

Can societies survive without enemies?

How do needs of the individual conflict with the needs of society?

How do I find beauty? What is beautiful? Why is beauty important?


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