Over the past few weeks I have received a few interesting queries on Twitter, and Labor Day weekend seems like a nice time to respond to them and reflect on the school year ahead.

Two of the questions concern the relationship between inquiry and UbD:

Q1: Do you consider UbD to be inquiry learning?

Q2: How do we reconcile UbD with inquiry, PBL and other open-ended divergent goals? How well do teacher-designed “essential questions” fit with approaches such as Make Just One Change where work is driven by student questions?

Let’s take the 1st question first since it is more straightforward. The aim of “understanding” requires student inquiry. That inquiry may be tightly controlled or very open-ended: socratic seminar vs. highly-directed teacher-led discussion, for example. But some student inquiry leading to student inference is an essential and non-negotiable part of learning for understanding. Why? Because understanding is dependent upon drawing inferences by oneself – as well as testing and justifying those inferences – if only to question or verify claims made by the teacher, other students, or authors. Otherwise, it is rote learning with no thinking behind it.

However, understanding requires both content acquisition and attempts to apply learning to new situations (transfer). So, strictly speaking, I don’t think UbD “is” inquiry learning any more than soccer or reading is (even though both require inquiry for success). Inquiry is necessary but not sufficient; it is a key strategy to be used as part of achieving understanding, and there are varied approaches to such inquiry.

The second question is trickier and raises important questions about educational aims. If the aim of education is to produce autonomous and inquisitive students, then it seems plausible to argue that student inquiry (and thus, student questions) should drive curriculum. Thus, a teacher design that chooses the questions and shapes the learning based on the questions is heading in a different more closed direction.

I think it’s a false either-or. There are no doubt teachers using UbD (and essential questions specifically) whose sole aim is to get students to come to pre-set understandings, knowledge and skill. Thus, the questions may be rich and the work may involve some inquiry, but – bottom line – the goals are convergent: “I want as teacher to ensure that you as students learn THIS with understanding.” We can see how this would work in a high school history or science class with fairly circumscribed Understandings and related assessments.

An open design in UbD. However, the design need not be so closed or convergent to be a valid UbD design. For example, the essential question in history might be: What questions offer the greatest insight into this period? A related understanding, rather than being a specific idea concerning history that I want all students to grasp, might instead be “No right answer exists, but some answers are better than others because they are more supportable by evidence and argument.” Now, the unit is framed, but the outcomes are not prescribed, and inquiry can fruitfully proceed in various ways.

I would argue, in fact, that thinking through projects, KWL’s and other student-generated work in a UbD way is a better approach to design than leaving everything open. Because then we and the students will have to have thought through in advance the criteria of success – the difference between effective and ineffective projects – instead of sending the message that anything you do as an inquirer is fine as long as it is a good-faith effort. (And PBL is not open-ended anyway. Some solutions are better than others, just as some Understandings are better than others.)

I used to say to my English students: “You need to understand that there are no correct final answers to any question of literary interpretation. But some answers are better than others. One purpose of this course is to understand how both statements can be true at the same time.”

Gradual release. Why should the teacher frame courses by essential questions? For the same reason that the soccer coach should design most practices: the framing is a function of expertise and experience. It is my job as teacher to know the vital, penetrating, and interesting questions. That does not preclude student-generated questions. On the contrary, by the teacher modeling what good questions are and how interesting work can be guided by good questions, the student is more likely to become a better autonomous questioner in the end – assuming we build our courses so that, over the long haul, the gradual release of teacher responsibility kicks in.

And that gradual release idea is the essence of backward design in UbD – and a great place to reflect this weekend. How am I designing the year to make it most likely that students become increasingly autonomous as questioners and arguers (in the Common Core sense) – while still learning and understanding content of value? Viewed this way, there is no dichotomy at all between UbD and inquiry-based pedagogy.

PS: Our most recent book – Essential Questions: Doorways to Understanding – offers numerous tips and approaches on how to honor these ideas.