The Best Ways of Using Essential Questions in the Classroom
How are you using essential questions in your classroom? Try this: think for a moment about the “best” question someone has ever asked you. As soon as it was posed to you, what happened? It may have caused you to stop and ponder what was being asked. You may have been inspired to think about related events in the present, and possibilities for the future. Maybe you were so ignited that finding the answer became a focus of inquiry. It’s also pretty likely that the best question you’ve ever been asked opened the door to some pretty meaningful and animated discussion.
That’s exactly what was supposed to happen! Here’s more good news—we can keep on making that happen in our classrooms, too.
The aim here is to look at some approaches for using essential questions in any inquiry- or project-based lesson. What follows may be refreshers for some teachers, and interesting new ideas for others. Either way you slice it, it’s meant to help and support us and our students with using essential questions in the classroom for our best learning exploits.
The Master of Using Essential Questions
The late Grant Wiggins had this to say about the importance of properly using essential questions. It’s a good general reminder as we move forward with the essential questions for our own students.
“Merely posting the EQs and occasionally reminding kids of it is pointless: 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—pose this and other key questions.”
Using essential questions in the classroom means more than just delivering the question to students. It means embedding the essence of it into their imaginations. It’s about inflaming feelings and creating a desire to see the challenge met or the problem solved by innovative and effectual methods.
When implementing an EQ has been done right, it will push students to think more critically, stretch more creatively, and work more collaboratively and productively—often more than they thought possible.
Exploring the Assumptions of Learners
When we first put the driving question of a lesson to the students, the goal is to begin a lively discussion with them. In this discussion, we guide them beginning with what they think or “assume” they already know about what the question is asking. Encourage them to speak openly and share ideas about the issues that are being posed by the question.
The students begin to realize that finding an answer is not always easy, but certainly not impossible with the right mindset.
As things begin to pick up steam, think about using essential questions that will moderate and expand the discussion. These are questions meant to elicit varied responses from students:
- What do we know (or believe we know) about what this question is asking?
- What do we know as fact, and as opinion?
- What can’t we know for absolutely certain, or how could we possibly discover this?
- Have we seen this problem before in some other version?
- Do we know of any past problems or issues related to this? How were those challenges met?
- How can we restate or rephrase the question to deepen our understanding of it?
- Can we achieve a specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART) solution to the problem?
A good exploration of our learners’ assumptions will foster curiosity for the question. It means the students have a personal stake in the outcome of solving the problem. The discussion has challenged their thinking and opinions. This gives them a deeper interest in the issue being presented by the question.
The EQ Belongs to the Students
In any inquiry- or project-based challenge, we want to shift responsibility for the learning to the students. This means guiding them towards owning the learning by owning the essential question. It can be done in any subject and in any grade level, because it’s not specifically about the subject itself.
When we pose the essential question, it’s meant to help students achieve an understanding that both involves and extends beyond the curriculum. In essence, an EQ is designed not only to obtain a solution but to develop a process—a critical-thinking process within students. This process will enable them to solve problems and ask good questions all throughout their lives.
Such a process makes them better thinkers, more efficient and productive collaborators, and more successful in every facet of their lives.
The idea is to foster this deeper skill-building while at the same time fulfilling our obligations as educators to the curriculum. The Solution Fluency Activity Planner is designed to help you do exactly that in a structured and intuitively-guided process of applying the 6Ds of Solution Fluency.
When using essential questions in the classroom, there are many ways we can begin to shift responsibility for learning to the learners. Here are 6 ideas for you to ponder and discuss.
- Keep it visible: Place the essential question in a clear location where students can always refer back to it, even if they’ve been asked to write it down. This visual trick is a simple reinforcement tool that has stood the test of time in many a classroom.
- Encourage feedback: When the question is posed, ask students to share their initial thoughts either verbally or in writing. This ties in with the assumptions exploration we discussed earlier.
- Constructive Redirection: When students ask about the question, encourage deeper thinking by asking them in return, “That’s a very good question. What do you think? Where might the answer be? How can you work together to find out?” The teacher is the easiest source for answers, but redirecting the responsibility for finding that answer will go a long way towards critical thinking skill development.
- Set Goals and Milestones: Students work with deadlines on a regular basis. This is a perfect opportunity to nudge them towards setting their own learning goals and milestones while responding to the essential question they’ve been given.
- Foster the Mentorship Mindset: Every student learns at a different pace and in a different way. Part of the collaborative process is all students supporting each other in all ways of learning. Let the natural-born leaders in your class give others who need it help and encouragement, where appropriate.
- Use Student-Driven Assessment Techniques: This involves allowing students regular windows for critiquing the lesson and the driving question, and their own learning process all the way throughout. It’s a way of “checking in” with students and keeping them aligned towards taking responsibility for their learning. It helps them develop a sense of independence in their thought and a way to rely less on an external source of authority.
The essential questions we give to our students are some of the most powerful and rewarding learning tools we have at our disposal. Any great question, like any other great piece of writing, deserves respect and consideration.
As you create these great works of inquiry and challenge for your students, it’s hoped that the strategies and ideas listed above will help you get the most from using your own essential questions in the classroom.
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