Cash in on Learning: Engaging and Authentic Learning through Essential Questions

This past April, I had the incredible honor of working with the Bureau of Education in Hong Kong to train teachers on depth and complexity. The Chinese government as a whole is moving toward great reform in how curriculum is constructed and how teachers instruct. One of my charges was to help teachers take what is considered “mandated” curriculum (in textbooks) and deepen the material for greater, more authentic learning. In this blog, I’ll share with you the initial process we used to take textbook material into greater sophistication. You can use this same process with your textbooks to “raise the floor and remove the ceiling,” defining what really matters and challenging students to ask good questions.

First, we reviewed the overall intent of the units of study the teachers were asked to teach. As an example, I’ll use a unit all sixth-grade teachers are required to teach within a humanities course. The unit covers topics such as global climate change, pollution, and environmental protection. Students are exposed to different text types, including poetry; they develop reading strategies such as identifying main theme and mood/tone in poems about nature and learn to create expanded responses. The teacher text states that the overarching theme is “the environment.”

Air_.pollution from power plant_public domain via wikimedia commonsWhile the environment is a worthy theme, I questioned the teachers as to why a sixth-grade student would really care about this thing called the environment. After much discussion, the teachers realized that the aspect students cared most about was how the environment was changing. At this point we were then able to extrapolate what all students must know, be able to do, and understand by the end of this unit:

  • Students will know specific causes of pollution and global climate change and specific steps in curbing pollution and global warming
  • Students will know different types of poems, vocabulary related to poems, and techniques used in poetry
  • Students will be able to analyze the causes and effects of humans on pollution and global warming
  • Students will be able to identify main theme or ideas in a text
  • Students will be able to interpret tone and mood in a poem
  • Students will understand how humans have changed the environment for better or worse
  • Students will understand how people communicate through poetry

Now that we have our objectives clearly spelled out, we can begin the process of making the learning authentic beyond the textbook. One method to create more authentic and engaging learning is to develop good questions that spark a student’s drive to dig deeper into a topic. This all begins with developing what are called “Essential Questions.”

Earth_On_Stove_ by Lesserland shared through wikimedia commonsEssential questions (EQ) are those questions we ask throughout our whole lives. They are questions that have real meaning for the human experience and may never be fully answered. EQs are what scientists, mathematicians, scholars, musicians, artists, actors, and thinkers ask on a daily basis. They have meaning to all people no matter what subject we are working in. I like to break essential questions into two categories: Universal Essential Questions (UEQ) and Content Essential Questions (CEQ). Universal Essential Questions are just that: universal. They are often devoid of subject matter and personification (such as we, you, humans, people, etc.). Content Essential Questions take UEQs and embed the subject matter or personification into the question, bringing it closer to the curriculum. From the UEQ and CEQ you can then construct quality Unit Questions (UQ) to better guide the learning within a unit of study.

Using the unit on the environment and the concept of “change,” here are some examples:

  • UEQ: Why is change both positive and negative?
  • CEQ: How have changes to the environment been both positive and negative?
  • UQ: In what ways have changes to the laws regarding pollution both positively and negatively impacted the environment?

Note that I began the UEQ with “Why,” I began the CEQ with “How,” and I began the UQ with “In what ways.” This rule of thumb can assist you in going from very broad to more narrow questions.

Here is an example based on the concept of “revenge” in a unit on Hamlet:

  • UEQ: Why would revenge be justified?
  • CEQ: How does the desire for revenge propel character actions?
  • UQ: In what ways did Hamlet’s desire for revenge move the plot?

Another example based on the concept of “measurement” in a math unit:

  • UEQ: Why is standardized measurement important?
  • CEQ: How do various countries’ differences in measurement cause confusion?
  • UE: In what ways can we better prepare people to be less confused by differing measurement standards?

Advancing DifferentiationTo begin the process yourself, you can check out Chapter 2 in my book Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. In that chapter, I provide a lesson sample (pages 18–19) and template called the “Concept Development Workshop” (page 20) to assist you in getting your students to craft their own essential questions. I’ve found that when I have students generate the EQs, they are more likely to pay attention to answering the questions because they own them. Try it in your classroom; I know you will find that students will enjoy the process and even begin crafting their own EQs without your initiation.

Do you have a class or textbook you can challenge through essential questions? Tell us about it in the comments.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally. His most recent book is Differentiation for Gifted Learners, coauthored with Diane Heacox, Ed.D. He is also author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century.

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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1 Response to Cash in on Learning: Engaging and Authentic Learning through Essential Questions

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