The following is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of the just-released book Essential Questions: Opening Doorways to Student Understanding, written by Jay McTighe and me, and published by ASCD.

Now that you have a better sense of the characteristics of Essential Questions and ways of designing them, we turn to the question of implementation. How, then, should Essential Questions be put into action to ensure meaningful student engagement, persistent inquiry, thoughtful deliberation and the necessary re-thinking to lead to understanding?

In this chapter, we explore practical tips and techniques for helping you get the most from your Essential Questions. And although in Chapter 6, we will engage in a detailed exploration of ways to establish a “culture of questioning” in your classroom, we need to comment on its importance here as key to successful implementation.

No initiative, practice or policy is guaranteed to succeed. As with any seed to be planted, the soil must be ready and conducive to growth. The seedbed of education involves the beliefs, values, structures, routines, protocols, and climate that influence actions, shape attitudes, and impact learning. A healthy culture is one in which everyone shares aims and acts in concert to advance them.

The seed and seedbed analogy is important in another sense. Many of the best student comments in response to challenging questions are tentative, glib, or naive. Thus, every response is like a seedling with potential that needs nurturing and sometimes, pruning. Similarly, the sharing and refinement of burgeoning ideas can only happen in a climate that supports intellectual risk-taking. On the other hand, the culture has to be built on a commitment to sound evidence and reasoning in which any opinion, without proper reasoning and supportive evidence, becomes recognized as lacking. So, if we value open yet disciplined inquiry; if seek thoughtful not thoughtless responses to questions, then we must shape the environment accordingly. That shaping requires us to ensure a safe and inviting space for thinking out loud while also making clear that certain habits, beliefs, actions, and contributions can undermine the aim of free thought and collaborative inquiry.

New Rules

The importance of thinking explicitly about a culture in support of inquiry comes from the fact that a focus on essential questions establishes new rules for the “school game.” For the majority of learners, school is a place where the teacher has the “answers” and classroom questions are directed for the purpose of finding out who knows it. Ironically, many teachers signal that this is the game even when they don’t intend to communicate it; e.g., by only posing questions that elicit a “yes-no” or single “right” answer; by only calling on students with raised hands; and by answering their own questions after a brief pause.

We acknowledge that these can be difficult questioning habits to break. Indeed, noteworthy research conducted in conjunction with the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) revealed how different approaches to questioning can take root and escape our notice.  When the first TIMSS studies compared instructional practices in American and Japanese classrooms, the authors noted an important difference in beliefs that played out in classroom behavior and lesson plans:

Teachers ask questions for different reasons in the United States and in Japan. In the United States, the purpose of a question is to get an answer. In Japan, teachers pose questions to stimulate thought. A Japanese teacher considers a question to be a poor one if it elicits an immediate answer, for this indicates that students were not challenged to think. One teacher we interviewed told us of discussions she had with her fellow teachers on how to improve teaching practices. ‘What do you talk about?’ we wondered. ‘A great deal of the time,’ she reported, ‘is spent talking about questions we can pose to the class – which wordings work best to get students involved in thinking and discussing the material. One good question can keep a whole class going for a long time; a bad one produces little more than a simple answer.’ (Stevenson and Stigler, 1992).

All successful implementation starts with clear and explicit goals. And since the goal of EQs is different than the goal of content acquisition, this principle is all the more critical. It must therefore become clear that when Essential Questions are on the table, the aim is sustained inquiry and rich discussion increasingly facilitated by students, not a hunt for “the” answer that the teacher thinks is correct.

In his teaching Grant used to repeatedly state the (counter-intuitive) idea at the heart of true intellectual inquiry: “Everyone is entitled to their ideas, and no answer is final; but some answers are better than others. Part of your job this year is to understand how this can be so.”

In addition to confronting deeply held (and often unexamined) beliefs and comfortable habits by teachers, the implementation of EQs requires a deliberate effort to reorient students to the “new rules” of the game. We recommend discussing explicitly the purpose, associated practices, and changed roles that the use of Essential Questions entails. Here are some examples of key ideas framed as sentences to be spoken in class to prepare students for the changes:

      • “There’s not a single correct answer for this question. Life is about the consideration of plausible and imperfect alternatives.”
      • “Coming to understand important ideas is like fitness: it takes practice over time.”
      • “When a question is posted on the wall, it means that we are going to consider it again and again.”
      • “Inquiry is not a spectator sport: each of you needs to listen actively and participate.”
      • “Everyone is fair game. I won’t only call on people who raise their hands.”
      • “If and when I or others challenge your comment, it doesn’t mean we don’t like you or don’t value your contribution.”
      • “Making mistakes is an expected part of learning. If you never take a risk of making a mistake, you’re not likely to improve.”
      •  “You may find that you are re-considering things that you thought you understood. That is normal – even desirable.”

Like the care of seedlings, the new rules will require patience, careful nurturing, and constant reminders. Overtime, they will become the norms, allowing big ideas to take root and mature understandings to blossom.

Implementing Essential Questions

The most obvious way in which implementation of Essential Questions differs from conventional instruction is that the question is not just asked, discussed, and left behind as different content is covered. The whole point of the Essential Question specifically (and teaching for understanding more generally) is that the exploration is designed to be spiral-like or back-and-forth between the question and new sources of information, experience, or perspective. In other words, we need to repeatedly return to the question to probe further, think more deeply, and arrive at more insightful understandings.

We can describe what has to happen in any successful use of EQs, then in terms of a four-phase process (Fig. 4.1):

Figure 4.1 – A Four-Phase Process for Implementing Essential Questions

Phase Goal
  • 1. Introduce a question designed to cause inquiry.
  • Ensure that the EQ is thought-provoking, relevant to both students and the current unit/course content, and explorable via a text/research project/lab/problem/issue/simulation in which the question comes to life.
  • 2. Elicit varied responses and question those responses.
  • Use questioning techniques and protocols as necessary to elicit the widest possible array of different plausible, yet imperfect answers to the question. Also, probe the original question in light of the different takes on it that are implied in the varied student answers and due to inherent ambiguity in the words of the question.
  • 3.Introduce and explore new perspective(s)
  • Bring new text/data/phenomena to the inquiry, designed to deliberately extend inquiry and/or call into question tentative conclusions reached thus far. Elicit and compare new answers to previous answers, looking for possible connections and inconsistencies to probe.
  • 4. Reach tentative closure.
  • Ask students to generalize their findings, new insights, and remaining (and/or newly raised) questions about both content and process.

Note that this process is not restricted to a single unit. We can use this framework to string different units together so that Phase 3 could be the start of a new unit in which a novel perspective is introduced and explored in depth using the same question(s).

Here is a simple example of this 4-part schema from science using the question: What is science? In many middle school and high school science courses, teachers often devote an initial unit or lesson to the question. Typically, though, after an early reading and discussion, the question is dropped, never to return that year as attention turns to acquiring specific knowledge and skill. (This pattern is aided and abetted by most textbooks.)

Let’s see how the framework helps us more clearly see an alternative approach in which the Essential Question becomes more prominent throughout the course.

Figure 4.2 – A Four-Phase Process for Implementing Essential Questions

(example – secondary Science)

Phase Goal
  • 1.Introduce a question designed to cause inquiry.
  • What is science? How does it relate to or differ from common sense and religious views on empirical issues?
  • 2.Elicit varied responses and question those responses.
  • Students read 3 different short readings that address the EQ, in which there is great disagreement about what science is, how it works, and how much stock we should put in its answers.
  • 3.Introduce and explore new perspective(s)
  • Students are asked to do 2 different experiments in which methods vary and margin of error is salient. They also read about a few controversies and false discoveries in the history of science,: read Karl Popper on how science is inherently testable and tentative – “falsifiable” – where political, social and religious ideology can always explain anything; read Feynmann on how most people misunderstand what science is; read Hume on why we should be inherently skeptical about science as truth.
  • 4.Reach tentative closure.
  • Ask students to generalize their findings, new insights, and remaining (or newly raised) questions about the nature of science.

As the example suggests, proper treatment of the question would demand not only that the question be constantly revisited throughout the year – “Based on the previous two experiments and our lively disagreements about the findings in the Global Warming research, what would you now say science is?” – but that the course must include a look at pseudo-science and the danger of confirmation bias, as well as consideration of the very counter-intuitive aspects of modern scientific thinking (which often give rise to common and persistent student misconceptions in the sciences and about science itself).

Here is another example of these four phases applied to an elementary social studies unit on “regions.” Notice how the unit plan reflects a similar kind and flow of inquiry as in the mathematics example. These EQs are introduced: Why are North, South, East and West and the like accepted as “givens” and are other useful regional distinctions perhaps as helpful?

Phase Goal
1. Introduce a question designed to cause inquiry. After a cursory lesson on the typical names and characteristics of US regions, ask: Could we carve up the map differently? What kinds of regions might be just as useful for us to define? What “regions” do we live in? How many regions do we live in?
2.   Elicit varied responses and question those responses. To what extent is defining an area as a “region” useful?  Compare and contrast the benefits and weaknesses of various regional maps and categories for school, town, and state; and alternate regions of the US, based on cultural aspects (e.g. regional sports affiliations).
3.   Introduce and explore new perspective(s) Pursue the idea of regions based on cultural aspects (food, leisure, jobs) and thus the extent to which talking about regions like the “south” or “northwest” may be unhelpful because it can cause us to stereotype and overlook uniqueness or diversity in every region. Related questions can then be explored: To what extent do we usefully define ourselves in “regional” terms, e.g. southerner, coastal, West Tennessee, Upstate NY, Northern California, etc. as opposed to by state or nation? When is it useful to define region by physical characteristics and when is it useful to define it by sociological characteristics? etc.
4.   Reach tentative closure. Ask students to generalize their findings, new insights, and remaining (or are newly raised) questions about regions and the usefulness of the idea.

Such a framework for working with EQs, while necessary, is not sufficient. The key to getting the most from your EQs rests in the use of follow-up questions and subsequent learning activities. Here are a set practical and proven techniques of engaging more learners and extending their thinking and meaning making. While these methods may be employed with most types of classroom questions (guiding, leading, hooks), they are especially impactful when used in conjunction with open-ended questions without a “correct” or expected answer…

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