The Power of Essential Questions: How Do We Tell Stories & Why Are They Important?

When unpacking inquiry and helping colleagues create a deeper understanding of how we can move from a traditional teaching model to a learner centred classroom, one critical step is evident in the use of essential questions to guide learning.

Essential questions, open-ended in nature and not answered without research and action, are a key characteristic of the inquiry classroom.  I often advise teachers curious about adopting an inquiry model to begin their transition by selecting a unit of study they have seen great success in (success meaning engagement, interaction with rich material and information, and resulting in a deeper understanding for your learners).  I ask colleagues to restructure this identified unit so it begins with an essential question that guides their resources, activities, planning, and learning.

To help this planning I provide essential questions I have used in the past in the classrooms I have worked with.  Whether it be Science (what is the importance of the scientific method?), or Math (what time in the morning must a ship, anchored in a harbour, set sail to avoid being beached at low tide?), or History (how can the events of the past help us better understand the world of today?), providing examples of essential questions helps get the planning ball rolling.

One essential question I love exploring in the English classroom is: How do we tell stories and why are they important?

This essential questions provides a few powerful opportunities in the Structured Inquiry end of the inquiry pool.

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First, by beginning with this essential question (as opposed to a piece of writing) we can immediately dive into accessing prior knowledge, sharing perspective and point of view, and we can begin to discuss where our understandings, collectively, could take us.  Before we analyze text, video, visual, or auditory sources we share and create a broad understanding of the essential question.  This is extremely powerful.  It provides learners with confidence in learning as well as agency in the classroom.  It engages learners in the process of planning our learning pathway as many of them will identify a resource that will help in our exploration of the essential question.  And it begins with collaboration and sharing, as opposed to passively “participating” in a lecture.

Second, by beginning with this essential question we are able to bring in a wide array of resources and unpack meaning from them all.  Novels, poetry, stories, song, artwork, speakers, and experiential opportunities all guide our learning through this inquiry unit.  Too often in the traditional English classroom units of study are shaped and dictated by the resource the teacher selects.  Typically referred to as Novel Unit, Short Story Unit, Poetry Unit etc, the key defining characteristic of learning, according to this structural approach, is the resource.  By exploring many sources of information in the inquiry classroom and not limiting our learning to a single text, learners unpack a variety of voices and formats of communication all the while deepening their understanding of the continuous strand throughout the learning process, the essential question.

And third, as we are all exploring the same essential question together I, the facilitator of inquiry in our classroom, can successfully plan a strong inquiry unit.  By creating the essential question prior to the unit I have the time to explore, research, and identify strong sources that will help deepen our understanding of the essential question.  As we begin to unpack the essential question I feel more confident in providing learners with the agency, time, and space (at times a messy process) to seek out and locate resources on their own as I know we have a strong backbone of information (the sources I have gathered) that will undoubtedly support our inquiry.  This planning prior to the unit beginning also allows me to identify several learning objectives of our course, details that I term “must know” or “must do” in our curriculum.  Combined, this essential question and the structure we are operating in presents great opportunity at the onset of our school year.

Are you and English teacher?  If so, what resources would you bring into to the inquiry classroom to deepen our understanding of this essential question?  If not, how do you see beginning with essential questions impacting learning in your classroom?  Please leave a comment below!

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