For our module 4 in our EDTC 6105 class, I wanted to dive deeper into essential questions and learning targets. ISTE coaching standard 2f focuses on coaching teachers in and model incorporation of research-based best practices in instructional design when planning technology-enhanced learning experiences. Two practices that support students learning are essential questions and learning targets, and although I have been teaching for 6 years I still had some confusion on the difference between the two and best practices that exist when implementing them in the classroom with students. Luckily, there is a lot of information and research out there about both. After synthesizing much of the research and information I decided I should split up my blog posts. So for this blog post I will be focusing on essential questions. My goal is to create a deeper understanding of what essential questions are, how they impact learning in the classroom and how I could as a coach guide teachers in making meaningful use of them in their instruction.
What Are Essential Questions
Essential questions (EQ’s) are questions that probe for deeper understanding and inquiry. “Essential questions create a problem orientation that leads to exciting learning conversations, to creative problem solving, and to the consolidation of major concepts, connections, vocabulary, strategies, and ideas that can then be used to extend further learning and to solve problems in students’ lives and out in the world” (p. 42, Willhelm, 2014). If I were to explain essential questions to my 3rd graders I would tell them the EQ is like the grand quest in a video game- they are the “why” or the purpose for learning and drive students’ quest for knowledge.
Crafting Essential Questions
Crafting EQ’s could be a whole other blog post, however alignment with the standards is the basic first step. After deciding on which standard(s) you want to align the EQ with you can start brainstorming. EQ’s should have the following characteristics:
Is open-ended; it will not have a single correct finite response.
Is intellectually engaging and sparks meaningful discussion.
Taps into higher-order thinking based on DOK 2 and 3 such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction.
Targets transferable ideas that crosscuts more than one discipline.
Sparks further inquiry and thus additional debate and discussion.
Requires evidence to support justification and not just a single answer with no evidence.
The question is revisited throughout the unit of study time and time again. Recurring.
Helpful Resources When Crafting EQ's
Using UbD template you can backwards plan a lesson or unit. There are more resources in the book and online the UbD framework is a great place to start if you are wanting to learn more about UbD. Additionally, here are some examples of UbD templates filled out for different grade levels, which contain examples of EQ’s and the other components in the template.
The Question Formulation Technique protocol which I wrote about earlier (see here) piqued my interest in helping to craft essential questions. My wondering is, if you use the QFT with your class: could that lead or guide your creation of authentic EQ’s? My assumption is yes. To learn more about QTF you can head to my previous blog post or go to the Right Question Institute.
Making Essential Questions Meaningful
The seventh characteristic of essential questions in the list posted above (about revisiting EQ’s) is one that perplexed me. Because, while you can craft a great essential question, isn’t how you use it just as important? As I was doing more research on EQ’s there weren’t many examples of how it was used or revisited. I found an article by nationally recognized educator and co-developer of Understanding by Design: Grant Wiggins, whom echoed my perplexity. He wrote, “far too often over the years I have seen plenty of good stuff posted like this – but no deep embedding of the Essential Question (EQ) into the unit design and lessons that make it up. Merely posting the EQs and occasionally reminding kids of it is pointless. Rarely is the EQ central to the assessment – in part, because all too often the EQ is too convergent and has a right answer that the teacher wants learned. Almost never does there appear to be a plan whereby the question goes from the teacher’s control to the students’ control.” He states, that the aim is to use the question to “frame specific activities, to provide perspective and focus, to prioritize the course, and to signal to students that, eventually, THEY must – on their own.” Wiggin’s wrote a book on essential questions and outlined a four phase protocol that teachers could follow to help navigate the use of EQ’s in class.
In The Essential Guide to Essential Questions. The author Lee Watanabe-Crockett provides questions that can be used to moderate or expand discussions around the EQ. I found that the questions could be helpful when first exploring the EQ and give a possible scope and sequence to students on how they will tackle it.
So How Can I Make Essential Questions Matter?
To answer my own EQ that I posed my learning during this module: How Can I Make Essential Questions Matter? Here are my answers:
Be mindful that the question is in essence “essential” to each one of the students. Meaning that students believe the question bears compelling reasons to investigate.
Create EQ’s that connect class content to important and authentic issues, promote creativity, critical thinking and encourages collaboration and communication (hello 21st-century learning skills).
Use EQ’s to promote students to construct knowledge through learning, research, inquiry, feedback, and reflection and remember that EQ’s can be used over a course, unit, week or day. Often embedded within an essential question are subcategories that will generate questions that guide the learner’s inquiry.
Look into using UbD to design instruction remembering that the crafting of the EQ as well as, the lessons, texts, prompts, rules of engagement, and assessments provide the key elements needed for EQ to succeed.
I think that through UbD framework, and Wiggin’s 4 Phase Protocol for Implementing EQ’s I could begin to coach teachers and help teachers implement and reflect on their use of essential questions in the classroom.