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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