Vol 6|No 1|September|1996
II. Framing Essential Questions
We are fighting a long school history of topical research. For decades students have been sent to the library to "find out about" some topic. This tradition has led to information gathering but little analysis or thought.
Essential questions set students and staff free from this tedious and wasteful ritual. Research becomes motivating and meaningful. An essential question has the following attributes:
¥ Essential questions spark our curiosity and sense of wonder. They derive from some deep wish to understand some thing which matters to us.
¥ Answers to essential questions cannot be found. They must be invented. It is something like cooking a great meal. The researcher goes out on a shopping expedition for the raw ingredients, but "the proof is in the pudding." Students must construct their own answers and make their own meaning from the information they have gathered. They create insight.
¥ Answering such questions may take a life time, and even then, the answers may only be tentative ones. This kind of research, like good writing, should proceed over the course of several weeks, with much of the information gathering taking place outside of formally scheduled class hours.
¥ Essential questions engage students in the kinds of real life applied problem-solving suggested by nearly every new curriculum report or outline curriculum standards such as the NCTM and the Science Standards.
¥ Essential questions usually lend themselves well to multidisciplinary investigations, requiring that students apply the skills and perspectives of math and language arts while wrestling with content from social studies or science.
It would be best if students could learn to frame their own essential questions, but in most cases they will require several experiences with teacher generated questions before they can shed years of practice with trivial information-gathering questions.
Here are three middle school examples:
"With the economy shifting and changing, families are sometimes forced to move to entirely different regions in order to find jobs. Imagine that the families in your team are all moving from the West Coast to New England. Create a multimedia presentation which you might share with your parents recommending the best New England city to move to from the following list of cities. Your choice must be based upon the availability of jobs your parents can fill and other criteria identified and listed by your team related to categories such as recreation, education, entertainment, climate, etc."
"There is much disagreement among people who plan for student use of the Internet regarding what kinds of access should be permitted. Some people are afraid that students will come into contact with offensive materials. Others are afraid that limitations will limit student's freedoms. Imagine that your team has been assigned the task of revising the attached sample policy from School District X. Compare this policy with others from around the nation and then produce a clear list of recommended amendments, explaining your reasons for each of your suggestions. You will prepare a persuasive multimedia presentation as if speaking before the district's board of education."
"Some people think that CD-ROM edutainment products may do damage to young people. What seem to be the biggest risks people see connected with such products and what evidence can you find to dispute or substantiate their fears? Create a persuasive multimedia report which might appear on the evening news as a consumer advisory for parents."
When teams are engaged in responding to questions which require this kind of thinking, there is little danger that they will be satisfied with "surfing" the Net. After an hour of surfing they are likely to start complaining. "This isn't getting us anywhere!"
III. Identifying Subsidiary Questions
One of the first steps students take in their teams is the listing of smaller questions which will help them answer their main question. They need to understand how large questions are really the parent and grandparent of many related questions, all of which can nest within the largest question like small Russian dolls. Effective research results from formulating as many categories of related questions as possible, with each category suggesting missing questions.
When a team begins the task of selecting a city in New England, for example, they must list selection criteria related to categories such as climate. "What do we want to know about climate?" the team asks. "I don't like cold weather!" complains one member. "OK, then, what are the highs and lows and average temperatures for each city. What else do we want to know?"
IV. Stating Suppositions - Hypothesizing and Predicting
Before they proceed very far, students list suppositions, pose hypotheses and make predictions - many and most of which will be revised as information is gathered. This thought process helps to provide a basis for construction of meaning.
Marty and Jacqueline Brooks' 1993 ASCD publication In Search of Understanding: the Case for Constructivist Classrooms makes a great primer describing this student thought process.
The Brooks stress the importance of students stating suppositions early in the planning process. The research team is speculating. "What do you suppose? Why do you suppose? How do you suppose?" Heeding their intuition and checking their previous experience or knowledge base, students list their best guesses, their hunches, their conjectures. These are shots in the dark. Research then brings light to the subject. Information proves illuminating. Students revise their guesswork. They reconstruct meaning.