Friday, July 11, 2014

The Question of Essential Questions

Essential questions are the tool we use in the inquiry process to ignite student's thinking, curiosity, prior knowledge, commitment and excitement for their own learning.

We should be using this the kick off a Unit of Inquiry to provoke student thinking and throughout the Unit to check on how their thinking changes, how their understandings transform and how they develop new knowledge and skills. We should use them also towards the end of the Unit of Inquiry, for students to reflect on how their learning has evolved and for teacher to identify students' new understandings.

I love using essential questions at the start of the Unit of Inquiry to reveal their prior knowledge. In this sense, I use them as one of  many strategies to identify what they already know, and I document this in the third step of the planning process ("How will we know what we have learned?").

I recently had a discussion with a colleague (experienced PYP teacher and workshop leader, of whom I've learned a lot!) about the use of essential questions as a way to identify student's prior knowledge. We discussed whether or not these questions should be used at this stage of the inquiry. Although we agreed that they must be used to ignite student curiosity at the beginning of the unit, we had our differences regarding their use as a "formal" tool to identify prior knowledge.

Should we use essential questions only as a way to promote curiosity and provoke interest in the Unit of Inquiry? Should we use these as a way to identify prior knowledge? Should we use them for both?

I believe that essential questions can tell you so much more about what students know, think, believe and are able to do than other more discipline directed methods to identify prior knowledge (such as a questionnaire with science concepts and content oriented questions that students answer to inform you of their pre-conceptions, or a drawing where students include "all they know about" a given topic). I like using strategies like these to specifically identify what students already know about math, science, reading.... I think we need these methods, but I think that student's answers to essential questions can give a teacher much more insight into what students truly know, feel, think... way beyond their subject specific knowledge.

I will be doing some research on what the literature about essential questions says regarding this issue, probably going to authors like Wggins and McTighe, and see if this information can further enlighten me. Check back in to see this later!

But for now, I would love to hear your opinions about the subject: how do you use essential questions? What do you think they are best for? what are the pros and cons on using essential questions as a way to check prior knowledge? What does your experience tell you?

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