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, and we can keep on making that happen in our classrooms.
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, it’s meant to help and support you and your learners with using essential questions for your best learning exploits.
Using essential questions in the classroom means more than just delivering the question to students. It means embedding its essence into their imaginations.
It’s about creating a desire to see the challenge met or the problem solved by innovative and effectual methods. When both assessing and 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.
Using Essential Questions to Explore Assumptions
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.