Compelling Essential Questions:  Connecting the Dots for Our Students

Think back to when you were a young child, trying to connect the numbered or letter dots to figure out what the mystery image would be.  You would carefully plot where the next line would go so the picture would come out just right.  Using essential questions is very much like that dot puzzle, trying to figure out what the major piece of the mystery concept is.  As teachers, our job is to help develop questioning skills in our students so they can successfully uncover the hidden picture, to help them develop the skills of inquiry to fit all the pieces of the lesson together.

Give students the opportunity to question

I always start at the W. Edwards Denning quote, “if you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”  Too many times we as teachers find ourselves asking all the questions, guiding our students towards specific goals we set. While this is important to individualize learning for all students, often the most meaningful learning occurs when we let students take control of their own learning.

We need to start thinking about giving our students the freedom to ask their own questions even if that means they create a new path different from the one we planned on.  Creating opportunities for students to think and wonder about the new content is instrumental so they can expand their curiosity about what they are learning and discovering.


Implementing student-led inquiry

The next question still remains: how do we create these opportunities?  How do we allow students to take ownership of their own inquiry?  How do we get them to use those inquires to guide their learning?  There are numerous techniques that teachers can use to help build students questioning skills.  I prefer to use a question stem bookmark early in the year with my middle school students to help them learn how to create questions.  I find that my students are not given many experiences to create their own questions and need some scaffolded opportunities to be successful.  However, it can not stop there.  We need to give them the tools, resources, and opportunity to investigate their questions, talk about them, and discover new questions.

Another strategy I use with my students is to annotate while they are reading a piece of text.  Start jotting down notes, thoughts, questions.  I start out modeling through think-alouds, a method I used frequently when I taught at the elementary level.   As we interact with a piece of text our mind naturally wonders and curiosity develops.  We need to help develop this skill with our students.  We nee to show them this same skill can and should be used with primary sources, images, and other historical documents.  The job of the teacher is to teach the students to “think like a historian”.  Help build the connections between why events in history happened they way they did and why the event was portrayed a certain way.   Teach them to look at an event through different lenses to see the whole picture and empathize with different perspectives.


Facilitating deeper than surface level understanding

As my students get more comfortable crafting their questions they can begin to use those questions to guide discussions with each other.  Teachers can guide them with open questions to help facilitate inquiry and discovery the first few times, but the more students can create questions themselves, the better.  In this stage, students need to practice crafting questions that will expand their higher-order thinking.

Students need to understand how to debate and discuss an issue using evidence.  Allowing them to see things from a different perspective and know it is acknowledged even if it is different from their own.  Giving students the opportunity to collaborate with their questions and inquiries allowing them to dig deeper into the content they are exploring.  Using questioning and inquiry allows our students to go deeper into the content rather then the surface level understanding.  They can take the concepts of Alexander the Great and geography and use resources to wonder how the geography of the land impacted his conquest routes.

Teaching our students to question, wonder, and inquire about history can only help prepare them for the world outside of the K-12 setting.  Inquiry is a great resource to teach students to value their own mind as well as the minds of others.

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Karla Wienhold has been an educator for twenty-two years. She earned a bachelors’ degree in Elementary Education Education at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in 1997, a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Loyola University in 2004, and her Administration 1 Certification from Towson University in 2009.  Karla has also been a National Board Certified teacher since 2007.  In her work as a certified trainer for Active Classroom, she builds curriculum maps and trains educators on using the program, as well as leads webinars on various topics. In her spare time, she loves spending time with her family, attending musicals and various sporting events.

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