Several years ago as I was sitting in my grade 5 classroom in June getting ready for the summer holidays, I was reflecting on the school year gone by and thought to myself, “There has to be a better way to teach all these subjects!” My main goal was for my students to recognize that science, geography, language, math, history, etc were not isolated subjects nor were they an island on their own. There are many opportunities for cross-curricular integration and I had designed and delivered many lessons where students were learning in this manner. However, I still felt there was a more effective method in which students could explore issues, topics, and concepts in an integrated fashion. Additionally, as someone who values social justice and equity issues, I wanted to find a way to ensure that social justice was part of my teaching units.
I never thought the journey that I started that summer would end up being one of the best learning experiences of my life! I remember sitting at my parent’s kitchen table (I was still living at home at this time) with all the curriculum documents spread out in front of me and doing a scavenger hunt of sorts. I was searching for ways in which the expectations in one subject area overlapped with expectations from other subject areas. I started with the science and social studies curricula since they would be the best ones in which the “big ideas” would come to light. My next step was to generate a list of these “life big ideas” and related questions (which we now know as “essential questions” or “driving questions”). Since I was teaching grade 6 the following year, my first big idea was “development” and my related essential question was, “Should Canada continue to invest in space exploration?” I spent the next few weeks planning this unit; designing lessons, looking up resources, mapping out assessment strategies, and drafting a newsletter to parents about the unit.
This type of approach to teaching and learning allows students to use the inquiry method. They are introduced to the big idea and essential question and some initial discussions occur in our “community circle”. Students then engage in their learning by accessing the necessary resources (books, newspaper articles, websites, magazine articles, etc) to answer the question. This is not to say that there is no explicit teaching happening during the unit; of course there is! These explicit lessons just need to be planned carefully in terms of what information is being disseminated to students and when it is being disseminated in the learning cycle. I found that my students were engaged because their learning was self-directed; instead of giving them answers, they had to find them on their own. In other words, they were constructing their own knowledge and forming their own opinions and views based on their research and their experiences. I wanted my students to realize that there is no one right answer to these types of questions. One student could argue that we should continue to invest in space exploration while another student would argue that we shouldn’t invest in space exploration but as long as they each have valid and reliable arguments, they are both correct. Furthermore, this type of learning allows students to really listen to each other. We had weekly class meetings where we discussed the question and students shared how they felt. If students disagreed with each other, they did so respectfully and challenged each other by asking good questions (this in itself takes time to build in a classroom!). I also provided choice: my students could choose how to present the answer to the essential questions. Therefore, if one student’s strength was writing, he could write a persuasive essay; if another student wanted to deliver a speech, she delivered it in front of the class, and if another student loved technology, he shared his website with the class (my assessment procedures have evolved since then, which I will share in part three of my series). In the end, my students told me they really enjoyed the unit because they were allowed to express their thoughts and views, collaborate with their classmates, and didn’t have to complete a bunch of worksheets. Based on their feedback, I was determined to ensure that all my units were based around a big idea and essential question.
Here in no particular order are some other big ideas and essential questions I have done with my classes:
1) Big Idea: Survival (grade 7)
Essential Question: Does earth have a greater impact on us or do we have a greater impact on earth
2) Big Idea: Ethics (grade 8)
Essential Question: What role should ethics play in the advancement of science, technology and medicine?
3) Big Idea: Change (can work for all grade levels)
Essential Question: Is conflict necessary for change?
4) Big Idea: Power (grade 8)
Essential Question: Is water a right or a privilege?
5) Big Idea: Human Rights (grade 6)
Essential Question: Should Canada/countries continue to trade with countries who violate civil rights?
This is just a sample of my units. I will share more in part two of my series as well as on my website (which won’t be until late fall/early winter).
Here are some guidelines I have learned about writing essential questions:
- Essential questions are concepts in the form of a question
- Essential questions promote inquiry.
- Essential questions have no one right answer, therefore open-ended.
- Essential questions depends on the knowledge, prior experience, and questions that students bring to the table.
- Essential questions set the focus for the unit of study
- Essential questions are cross-curricular
- Essential questions promote critical thinking, reasoning, collaboration, communication, etc.
- Essential questions are related to the curriculum.
Things to Think About
- What prior knowledge do students need to know?
- What do students need to know in order to answer the question?
- What resources can/will they use/access to find the information?
- What instructional strategies best suit this type of learning?
- What types of formative assessments will you have in place to ensure they are learning what they are supposed to be learning?
- How will you accommodate for students who are on an IEP or who are ELLs?
- How will you support struggling students?
- In what possible ways can students demonstrate their understanding in terms of answering the essential question?
These are all things I have learned along my journey over the last 7-8 years; so my one word of advice is to start small because it can be overwhelming! I know I was overwhelmed when I first started but as I gained experience and received feedback from my students, it got easier and better! I now have a bank of these “life big ideas” and “essential questions” and I will share more of them in my follow up blog posts.
I’ve also had the privilege of delivering a three day course in the summer of 2014 and 2015 to teachers where they had the opportunity to explore teaching in this manner and providing a good chunk of time for them to plan one unit for the upcoming school year. It was a fantastic experience as we discussed the many benefits to students learning with an inquiry stance. I am still learning and brainstorming essential questions related to the big ideas as well as spending time gathering resources and bookmarking newspaper and magazine articles related to the major themes inherent in the open ended questions I ask my students.
Part Two of this blog series will hopefully be completed by the end of next week 🙂
Please feel free to leave me any questions or comments you have about my journey 🙂