“I have a question for you.” This starts most of my residencies nowadays, followed by, “But you cannot answer it. Not now.” I fashioned the opening to grab students’ attentions quickly. They always show greater interest in a question when they are not allowed to answer it. I also find having a question to dangle throughout a lesson keeps students both more focused on our task and more clear about the purpose of their participation: find an evidence-based answer to that question.
The concept of an Essential Question never played a role in my early training or reading. Upon ‘discovering’ it and its partner, the Enduring Understanding, the pair quickly became a core part of my teaching and my training of others, which started with my own staff.
While reviewing evaluative forms with my staff from teachers and students, I discovered a reoccurring issue. In post-program reflections, students referred most often to statements repeated by my staff many times throughout a program or residency; these tended to be management statements focused on how to behave, listening carefully, maintain concentration and the like. These responses started to outnumber those that mentioned the actual learning objectives or central purpose of the program. The obvious struck me. Core ideas needed to be explicitly introduced through questions or big idea statements, repeated many times and involve students in realizing them in tangible ways that would help the students clearly understand the original, explicit question. In other words, Enduring Understanding statements and Essential Questions should permeate a residency to provide focused lesson design, re-occurring reflection on the questions, and a sense of investigation with a continuity of purpose.
Quite simply, employing this pair of tools has helped me focus every residency, but more importantly, the students have shown greater understanding of the purpose of their experiences and are much easier to engage in reflective discussions. In a more effective way than with my previous work, the students are ‘in’ on what we are exploring and discovering. They have a heightened sense of why they engage in the ongoing sequence of activities. For some, they show a desire to want to answer the question that gets introduced daily but is almost a tease because answering it remains forbidden.
I once guided a group of first graders to consider the following pair. ‘Great ideas live inside of stories,’ and ‘When stories are different, can they be the same?’ The purpose was to get the students to compare a pair of stories and to uncover ideas and concepts that exist in many stories beyond the obvious elements of setting, character and etc.
Although the Essential Question isn’t one that elicits deep answers, I designed it specifically to trick the students. In addition, in combination with the Enduring Understanding, I would be able to guide the students to reconsider their kneejerk answers by first considering what great ideas exist within individual stories and then use that to compare the pair of stories we would explore. One student couldn’t wait to answer the Essential Question and, despite the fact that I forbade any answers yet, the moment I said, ‘When stories are different, can they be the same?’ he blurted out “No!” several times. As about halfway through the residency, as we finished exploring the first story, he answered the question again, saying, “They could be the same, I think, if the stories were by the same author.” At the end of the residency, when we finally had a full discussion on the question, he said, “I know now. Stories have different parts that can be the same as each other.”
I enjoy it when the students want to answer the question, want to discover the meaning behind an Enduring Understanding and become the ones moving a lesson forward in the hopes of uncovering a new possible answer. When they develop understanding and ownership of an experience, I find the learning is that much stronger.