Misusing Essential Questions

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. Since this can be quite annoying to teachers whose practice seemed to be working just fine, many experienced teachers defend themselvew by developing the habit of changing their jargon without bothering to change their practice. As one veteran teacher told me, “You can call it whatever you want. I know what I’m going to do.”

This is part of the reason educators sometimes seem incapable of saying the simplest thing without lapsing into mind-numbing jargon. They’ve acquired the habit of seeming to be up-to-speed and compliant with whatever new program is now foisted upon them by learning the talk.

The downside, of course, is that they can become quite resistant to the benefits that might follow from reflecting on the value of new approaches. Even worse, they develop habits of sloppy language that cannot 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 class’s 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 bya list of “rewards” and a list of “consequences.” Clearly she controlled her classes with rewards and punishments, and the apparent effect of her training in Dreikurs’ methods was that she began to use “consequences” as a euphemism for “punishments.”

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 greatly reducing at least any honest talk of punishment in schools. Kids who are punished are not fooled by being told detention is a consequence. They do learn that school is sometimes an Orwellian sort of place.

Teachers who use jargon in a willy nilly way, without much attention to what the words actually mean, run the risk of corrupting rather than educating young minds. The best teachers say what they mean and mean what they say. Educaton is about truth or it corrupts.

The term “essential question” was introduced into the national 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 the state and national standards. We hoped linking student research and writing to big ideas and enduring concerns would help teachers 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:

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 disobedience—or 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 “construct” his or her own understanding of civil disobedience—a 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 dop 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. They may do more harm than good.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/05 at 07:31 PM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

Reflection as critical thinking

Reflection is one of the major processes teachers invite and support during a learning expedition.

Another name for reflection is critical thinking. We are being reflective when we think about our thinking. Does what we are saying or thinking make sense? Is it reasonable? Do we have enough evidence to support what we think? Are we being logical? Are we being honest? Are we being fair?

In Habits of Thought, Richard Paul of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking says that the basic building blocks of thinking are

(1) Beginning with clearly stated goals and purposes for study and inquiry;
(2) Formulating and framing problems and questions;
(3) Developing a defensible perspective and point of view;
(4) Assessing resource materials and texts for honesty and fairness;
(5) Questioning assumptions and biases;
(6) Making valid inferences; and
(7) Evaluating consequences of judgments and reasoning.

How often do classroom discussion focus on such issue? Classroom discussions can prepare the way for critical thinking when students are invited to:

(1) Summarize what others have stated;
(2) Elaborate on concepts and ideas;
(3) Relate topics to their own knowledge and experience;
(4) Give examples to clarify and support ideas; and
(5) Make connections between related concepts.

Too often students don’t reason well in the classroom and yet their sloppy reasoning is accepted or praised by teachers because it offers socially fashionable positions. According to Paul, teachers too often let students get by with “random and undisciplined” thought:

Most people . . .do not have “evidence� — other than the stuff of their subjective reactions — to justify their preferences. They prefer because of the way they feel not because of the way they reason. To choose because of these subjective states of feeling is precisely to lack criteria of evaluation or evidence that bears upon objective assessment. When challenged to support subjective preferences, people usually can do little more than repeat their subjective reactions (“I find it boring, amusing, exciting, dull, interesting, etc.�) or rationalize them (“I find it exciting because it has a lot of action in it.�)

The traditional way to teach critical thinking more rigorously than through discussions is through teaching writing. Students can be invited or assigned to tackle topics that require analysis. In such writing, they should be clear about the purpose of their argument, and then teachers can work with them to see if the evidence and reasoning they put on the page is sufficient to accomplish that purpose:

The fundamental criterion to use in analyzing and evaluating reasoning comes from an analysis of the purpose of the reasoner and the logic of the question or questions raised. For example, if a person raises the question, say, as to whether democracy is failing in the USA (in the light of the dwindling number of people who vote and the growing power of vested interest groups with significant money to expend on campaign contributions), we can establish general criteria for assessing the reasoning by spelling out what in general one would have to do to settle the question.

Heritage Projects provide a powerful way to help students “reason their way” into school subjects, “instead of being spoon-fed information that they memorize and then forget.”

Books, posters and videos for critical thinking

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/23 at 10:19 PM
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©2004 Montana Heritage Project

Western literature in the sixties

Researching Western History: Topics in the Twentieth Century. Gerald D. Nash - editor. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque : 1997. Page Number: 153.

. . .new transforming sociocultural trends disrupted the West in the later 1960s and early 1970s, as they did other regions of the country. These upheavals may not have been as upsetting as those during and immediately following World War II, but they nonetheless injected additional change and diversity into the western cultural bloodstream. Mounting discontent with an unpopular war and what seemed to be unresponsive federal, state, and local governments in dealing with urban, racial-ethnic, and family and poverty issues reoriented earlier sociocultural trends even while they ushered in new ones.

For the first time, a chorus of ethnic literary voices were heard throughout the region. Native American novelists N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, and James Welch dramatized controversies over reservations, white urban life, and the history and culture of the Indian past, even while Rudolfo Anaya, Tomás Rivera, and Denise Chávez reminded readers of the notable divergent experiences of Hispanics in the region. Indeed, these authors and their novels were startling reminders that the West of Indians and Hispanics differed markedly from the culture that many European Americans considered typical of the region.14

No less noteworthy were the enlarged contributions of women to western literature. Even though Mary Austin, Willa Cather, and Mari Sandoz published notable essays, nonfiction, and novels before the 1960s, Tillie Olsen, Joan Didion, Native Americans Leslie Silko and Louise Erdrich, and Asians Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, as well as more recent authors Marilynne Robinson and Barbara Kingsolver, represent the mounting importance of women’s voices, diversifying and enriching the canon of western writing. Erdrich’s four novels depicting Indian and small-town experiences in the northern Plains, for instance, are revealing portraits of women’s attitudes toward family, culture, and the environment that too often were missing from most earlier western fiction.15

Similar strains of change and diversity mark recent trends in western historiography. Beginning in the 1970s, many historians, but particularly those of minority backgrounds, produced an avalanche of new books about diverging racial/ethnic experiences in the West. For example, Albert Camarillo, Mario Garcia, Vicki Ruiz, and Ramón Gutiérrez authored several volumes, often innovative in approach and organization, examining Spanish-speaking peoples across the Southwest from the sixteenth into the twentieth centuries. Although Native American historians have been less active in writing monographs or syntheses of their western experiences, non-Indians Francis Paul Prucha, Richard White, Robert Utley, and Brian W. Dippie, among many others, have written superb studies of Indian policy, Indian cultures, and white-Indian conflicts. At the same time, the books and essays of Frederick C. Luebke, David Emmons, and William A. Douglass supply much-needed analytical studies of European immigrant groups.16

In several other areas, historians reveal how much our views of the West as frontier or as emerging region have changed in the last generation. Following national--in fact international--trends, western specialists have launched a blizzard of articles and books on women and families, urban and community experiences, and environmental topics. Taken together, these numerous studies create a more complex western past.

This tentative periodization of western American culture suggests an agenda for a multitude of new studies. Although Franklin Walker, Kevin Starr, and several members of the Western Literature Association have produced pathbreaking studies, western historians generally have paid scant attention to western literature, and most western literary studies beg for sound, extensive historical underpinnings.17 If we lack a well-integrated literary history of the West, one demonstrating how historical and cultural changes have shaped frontier, regional, and postregional trends in western writing, we also need wide-reaching studies treating the varied roles of ethnic groups, women and families, environmental themes, and popular figures such as the cowboy and outlaw in western prose and poetry.18

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/25 at 09:05 PM
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