Over the years I’ve noticed something about professional development. Whenever a new teaching strategy is introduced, there tends to be a focus on the many benefits of the strategy but little consideration of what must be given up to enjoy those benefits. This is unfortunate because assessing the costs of a strategy alongside its promised benefits is the only way to make a smart decision as to whether it is worthy of adoption.
So let’s not make the same mistake with using essential questions.
What are the overriding benefits of using the essential questions approach that justify the costs?
Here we go.
The Cost: Living in uncertainty
Certainty is the first casualty of essential questions and that’s because when you and your students ask the really deep questions, you realize really quickly that many of life’s questions own no simple answers: How does the government protect its people during war, yet still preserve civil liberties ? and Can war be glorious? Discussions centered around these types of questions often end in student confusion and uncertainty. Despite your heroic efforts, this lack of clarity causes some students to feel estranged and pessimistic about learning, which makes them want to shut down.
The Benefit: Open-mindedness
On the other hand, an environment of uncertainty can inspire students to take passionate positions on issues and justify those positions with independent thinking. The classroom becomes fertile soil on which different perspectives work themselves out and compete with one another. Questions create space for open-mindedness. It imbues students with the confidence to speak and the humility to listen.
The Cost: Predictability
You never really know what is going to happen when young people create or respond to a really good question. On the best of days, hands go up, people talk out of turn and there is passionate energy filling the room. On the worst days, there is boredom, bewilderment or indifference. Add in the fact that adolescents are already succumbing to distractions of all kinds, and you realize quickly that your capacity to predict the direction of learning is greatly diminished when you choose to have questions drive instruction. This brutal fact can be incredibly frustrating if you (or your students) thrive best in controlled learning environments.
The Benefit: Teachable moments
Discarding the need for predictability is really tough yet, once the grieving process is over, I’ve found that what you get instead is an enhanced capacity to seize on great teaching moments. That’s because when students show interest and generate or respond to a really good question, you’re able to truly listen and consider it without needing to make it conform into a preconceived lesson box. As we all know, some of our best teachable moments don’t live inside carefully planned lessons. They are spontaneous experiences which we let unfold.
The Cost: Quantitative measurement
Students produce many things to show they are thinking: they write papers, fill out exit slips and participate orally in class for example. All of these activities yield material evidence of learning. Yet really deep thinking, the kind that is inspired by profound questions, is often disjointed, sporadic and inarticulate. It is a private mental experience not easily measured through behavioral analysis and therefore eludes the kind of scientific measurement used successfully with other learning tasks . Therefore, the more you and your students use essential questions, the more you’ll have to live with the fact that some of what your students are learning won’t ever be known to you. You have to be okay with that.
The Benefit: A focus on student character
Once you come to terms with the fact that not all learning can be measured in the same quantitative, reductionist way, you can begin to refashion your teaching to look for and promote student character virtues. Watch your students. Do they seem curious? Are they patient, thoughtful and do they persevere when faced with a difficult question? Do they embrace criticism with inquisitiveness rather than defensiveness? You can also begin asking yourself– How can I better model these virtues for my students? With character as the focus, you have a better opportunity to assess your students as human beings with goals, aspirations, fears and hopes and you see yourself as a learning partner in this human-centered classroom. In this way, questions humanize your teaching and bring people together.
Well, do the benefits outweigh the costs?
The answer is always a function of the curriculum in front of you, the unique characteristics of your students and your own capacity and willingness to do it, all of which are moving targets.
We can be certain of one thing: It’s worth thinking about.
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