Why Are Essential Questions Essential for Good Teaching?

Most teachers are taught to write objectives for their lessons or units. Most textbooks (which drive most teachers lesson planning) have objectives written at the beginning of each chapter. Let’s look at an example:

  •  Students will understand the taxonomic classification system used by scientists and be able explain the phylogenetic relationship among organisms.

Technically, it is a good objective. It clearly states what the student will know and do. If I was 16 and reading this at the beginning of a chapter or on the syllabus, I have to admit that my first reaction might be, “wanna bet?” This objective is essentially useless to a student. By the end of the unit it might have some value. However, as the first thing a student reads to introduce a new topic it doesn’t work. It requires use and understanding of topic specific terminology to understand what the topic is about. That should be your goal for the lesson, not the starting point.

Teachers are taught to use objectives as a means to communicate to the student exactly what the point of the lesson and what expectations the teacher has for them. However, if you can’t understand the objective, the objective statement no longer has any value to the student. It might be a very useful tool for the teacher to organize and prioritize what lessons need to be done. This is emblematic of the problem with much of the teaching that occurs. Closed circuit announcement to the teachers: it isn’t about you! You already know it. It is about the students. Everything you do is to make it possible for the students to learn as much as possible as efficiently as possible. Instead of the above objective, what if the teacher started with questions such as these:

  • “How are living things organized into groups?”
  • “What can the organization of living things tell scientists about their relationships?”

Why waste the first day of instruction explaining what the objective means? Why not ask the students questions they can begin to answer right away? Admittedly, they would not be able to answer the questions using the correct terminology, but they could begin to form an answer to the question within the first five minutes of the unit of study. Beginning with the objective initially marginalizes any students struggling with the course. Beginning with the questions doesn’t exclude any learners. Anyone can fashion an answer that is their best guess. Your job as the teacher is to not accept “I don’t know.” Everyone knows something, because they have experienced life. The journey into a new topic should always begin here, with what they already know. They might be surprised by what they have already observed and learned. Contrary to what many may believe, students are not blank slates, or in more modern imagery, empty hard drives waiting to have new data written on them. As the unit progresses, they can then juxtapose what they thought they knew with what they know at the end. Your job is to then help them refine that knowledge by allowing them the time for cognitive dissonance between what they have already observed with the actual.

Also, essential questions provide the students a practice test question. Reading the objective as they study for the exam elicits passivity on the part of the student. It’s either “yep, can do that” or “nope, don’t get it.” The essential question elicits active work as they actually answer the question, but this time in much more detail than at the beginning of the unit. It also allows the student to see how much he or she has learned.

Maybe most importantly, beginning with the question creates a culture of mutual discovery and exploration, which I believe is a much more inviting learning environment than a statement that communicates an intellectual separation between the teacher and the student. Yes you are the expert on the topic, but in a culture of mutual discovery the student is empowered to learn. In the other the student is the compliant receptacle of information from the teacher. This might make for a quieter, more orderly classroom, but also makes for shallower learning and less meaningful construction of knowledge on the part of the student. So, again, I ask, why are essential questions essential to good teaching?