I have a deep appreciation for the sort of struggle that sometimes ensues when teachers are asked to construct essential questions. In fact, I still remember my first experience with this. I was fresh out of college and grappling with the uncertainty that arrived upon discovering that the really cool Hamlet “unit” I strung together for my student teaching experience wasn’t going to see me through the next thirty or forty years of practice. My building principal knew this too, I’m thinking, and this might have been why he asked me to begin constructing essential questions for my units of study.
Initially, this wasn’t easy, but eventually, I came to understand the difference between a question that is truly essential and one that is simply leading. Coming to know this was much like cracking the visual code on one of those Magic Eye pictures that were all the rage about ten years ago. With enough study, a clear picture began to emerge, and then suddenly, I could identify essential questions with far greater ease. This was a relief, to be sure, but like every “accomplishment” I’ve enjoyed as an educator, this new learning experience merely gave birth to more compelling questions.
For instance? Uh….what do we do with essential questions once we’ve written them?
In my experience, far too many teachers sweat far too much over the construction of essential questions simply because they’ve been mandated to do so, it’s difficult, and they are working under time restraints. This breaks my heart a little, if you want to know the truth, and it’s a perfect example of how easy it is to veer off course and begin focusing on the right thing for the wrong reasons. Teaching around essential questions is a powerful practice, but writing them isn’t the greater challenge (or at least it shouldn’t be). It certainly isn’t where the greater reward lies either. The pay-off for using essential questions happens where all great things do: inside of classrooms, where kids can get their hands and their minds around them.
It’s true that learning how to write essential questions transformed the way in which I planned my lessons and designed my assessments, but using essential questions in the classroom with my students completely transformed my practice and their learning experiences. This month, I’m revisiting the art and science of powerful essential question writing. I’m also thinking more about what happens after the writing is over. I’m remembering the better ways in which I used essential questions in my own classroom, and I’m asking a lot of other teachers what they are currently doing as well. Stop back to read about all that I learn over the next few weeks, and feel free to share your own thoughts as well.