Notice: Undefined variable: now in /htdocs/www/mpcp/core/core.functions.php on line 1901
TeacherLore

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

Name:

Email:

Location:

URL:

Smileys

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Submit the word you see below:


Next entry: Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians

Previous entry: Where can I find more Place-based teaching resources?

<< Back to teacherlore home