Five Methods To Get Students Asking Essential Questions
by GDC Team | Jun 3, 2015 |
“If as I suggest the true goal of education is inspiring students with a lifelong capacity and passion for learning, it is at least as important that students be able to ask the right question as it is to know the right answer.”
—Steve Denning, “Learning To Ask The Right Question” (Forbes Magazine, 2011)
Would you rather teach A students who are proficient at memorizing facts in a textbook and answering multiple choice questions, or B students who are curious about the world around them and want to grow intellectually?
At some point, students are going to have to do more than memorize facts. They might have to write papers that give them an opportunity to analyze information and present their own conclusions about history or science or law or numerous high-level academic subjects. They might have to make oral presentations that give them an opportunity to be a leader in their classes. They might have to do academic research. They might have to do scientific experiments.
When students are challenged during their academic career, they are going to have to have the skills to think critically. They might not have those skills if they don’t have a passion for learning.
How many times have you seen students with straight A’s at an early age lose interest in learning because school bored them? Spurring these students to ask questions rather than answer them might make them more intellectually curious.
Asking questions about academic subjects is, in general, a very good thing. If you really want to spur students to think, though, you should try to spur them to ask essential questions.
First Things First—What Are Essential Questions?
Let’s first look at a couple of questions that aren’t essential:
- “Who am I?”
- “Why am I here?”
These two questions were asked at a 1992 vice presidential debate by Admiral James Stockdale, a Vietnam War hero who was independent candidate Ross Perot’s running mate. As the examples of essential and nonessential questions presented in the book Essential Questions and on this website about the book illustrate, Stockdale’s questions were too specific to be essential. “Who are human beings?” can be classified as an essential question. So can “Why are human beings on Earth?”
The Essential Questions website lists several essential questions on a variety of academic subjects, including History, Science, Mathematics, and Language Arts. The book also lists “seven defining characteristics” of essential questions.
Essential questions, according to the book, are too open-ended to have one correct answer and are thought provoking enough to spark debate and discussion.
They also require the people trying to answer the question to analyze and evaluate rather than spit out a fact and raise additional questions.
“When students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater ownership of their learning, deepen comprehension, and make new connections and discoveries on their own,” reports the Harvard Education Letter Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions. “However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school.”
How do you spur students to ask essential questions? Here are some suggestions:
Let The Students Teach
If you’re a teacher, how did you come up with essential questions to ask students? You spent time formulating the questions because it was part of your lesson plan. What if students had to formulate a lesson plan? Obviously most, if not all of your students won’t be able to teach an entire class, but maybe they can come up with a few essential questions if you let them spend five minutes leading a classroom discussion on, for example, the history of man.
Let The Students Pretend
The students are living in the year 2015, but how about an assignment that requires some of them to prepare for a day in the life of someone who was living when human beings first existed? Other students could pretend to be living when the first sophisticated civilizations existed. Others could pretend to be living when great technological changes were first occurring. The students could research their eras and share their experiences with their classmates.
Let The Students Work In Groups
If you have a 25-student class, perhaps you could have five groups. One group consists of five students who are pretending to be scientists. Another group consists of five political leaders. There could also be groups consisting of ordinary people, writers, artists, etc. You can choose the five most appropriate groups. The reality is that many students struggle to learn when they’re alone, but they’re sparked by discussion with others. The groups could then share what they’ve learned.
Let The Students Leave School
The 180th day lecturing students on whatever subject you’re teaching is unlikely to spur them to learn any more than the previous 179 did. But what if the 180th day was spent at a museum? And I’m not talking sightseeing. Sure, the students can have fun on a field trip, but it should also be an academic experience.
The students should be prepared to complete assignments based on their experience, and share their assignments with the class.
Each student should have a different assignment. Maybe 10 students should be given an assignment related to your trip to a scientific museum and a different 10 students should be given as assignment related to your trip to a history museum.
Let The Students Communicate With Leaders
Or important people. Students are more apt to be interested in Science if you give them an assignment that requires them to write letters to the leaders of the local science lab. They’re more apt to be interested in Government if they write to their senators and mayors.
Ask the students to ask the leaders questions. You would be surprised how many important people are more than happy to communicate with schoolchildren.
You might also consider asking the students to choose whom to write to from a list of people who can help them academically, of course.
Essential Questions Mean Essential Learning
Schools do many things right. Many schools allow students to do scientific experiments under the guidance of teachers. Many schools, though, treat students as people whose primary obligation is to remember information taught by their teachers in class and presented to them in textbooks.
Students would become more passionate about learning if they were allowed to research information on their own and be more concerned about asking essential questions so they can improve their academic and intellectual skills while answering them.