Thursday, February 14, 2013

Using Technology to Make Essential Questions an Essential Part of Your Instruction

Updated February 14, 2017

In an extremely thoughtful and well-written post, On genuine vs. bogus inquiry, Grant Wiggins writes

Merely posting the EQs and occasionally reminding kids of it is pointless: the aim is to use the question to frame specific activities, to provide perspective and focus, to prioritize the course, and to signal to students that, eventually, THEY must - on their own - pose this and other key questions.

My understanding and application of Essential Questions has developed over time. As a teacher who was asked to post EQs daily and include them in lesson plans without any instruction as to why or how to do that effectively, I felt that EQs were a waste of time and just another thing to do. Later, as an instructional coach, I worked to help teachers write EQs that were aligned with their content standards and learning outcomes. Early on, my focus was on wording the EQs well. Eventually, I came to understand that EQs are meaningless unless they are used during instruction. The purpose of EQs is to help both the teacher and students focus on key content and develop the ability to ask and answer meaningful questions about content and processes. I encourage in-service and pre-service teachers I work with to ask EQs aloud at the start of a lesson, during the lesson, and again at the end. An EQ should frame the lesson or unit of instruction and provide a context for the learning to happen. EQs give students a learning outcome to work toward and should allow learners to respond in multiple ways over time. Keep in mind that students should not be able to answer an EQ with one word. EQs should prompt a thorough response to demonstrate depth of understanding.

Let me digress for a moment...

Attention is a necessary prerequisite of learning. Educators have to find a way to help students attend to important content. Selective attention involves the ability to choose where to focus your attention. Today's students are bombarded with stimuli and often need help attending to what's important. We also need to help students develop strategies for self-regulating their attention. Check your classroom environment. Is there a chance that your classroom is too stimulating for some students? Work to remove distractions. I encourage you to try these auditory and visual attention tests to experience what it's like for some students to attend when there are distractions in the environment.

After reading Wiggins' post, I immediately started to think through how technology can support teachers in making EQs meaningful. Below are some tools to help you integrate EQs into teaching and learning in your classroom and help you view them as more than just "one more thing to do".

    Use Canvas to connect assignments, discussions, and content to EQs. First, add your EQs as learning outcomes, and then import those outcomes to rubrics to explicitly connect assignments and discussions with EQs. Once you connect outcomes to rubrics, the Learning Mastery Gradebook in Canvas allows you to easily track student progress toward learning outcomes. 

Use Google Classroom to post EQs and have students compose responses and engage in ongoing conversation around the EQs. You can also label assignments with specific EQs to help students make a connection between learning outcomes and tasks.

Use Flipgrid to create a video-based discussion focused on an EQ. Create a new topic and pose the EQ as either a text or video prompt. Students can use or the free mobile app to post a short video reply (up to 3 minutes). Encourage students to reply to one another's initial videos to deepen the conversation. You can provide video or text feedback on each student's reply and use Flipgrid's rating scale to evaluate the thoughtfulness of student responses.

Socrative allows teachers to create individual or team-based quizzes containing open-ended, true/false, or multiple-choice questions. Students can respond through any device. Use Socrative to find out what students know before a lesson or unit of instruction. Use the stand-alone question feature to ask an EQ throughout a unit of instruction and get instant feedback. Students feel safe to respond anonymously and don't risk looking foolish in front of their peers.

Poll Everywhere provides a simple platform for asking EQs and allowing students to respond through any device. Set up an open-ended poll and allow students to respond prior to, during, and after a unit of instruction or learning experience.

Use Padlet to pose questions and have students respond by posting sticky notes to a wall you've created. Padlet allows students to add text, images, videos, or hyperlinks to their sticky note responses. Students can also take the lead on posting questions and prompts for their peers.

Host a Twitter chat using a classroom-specific hashtag focused on the EQ for your unit of instruction. Pose the EQ at the start of the conversation, and encourage students to respond to you and one another. Work toward releasing ownership to students by asking them to pose questions and moderate chats. View chat archives to see how students' understandings have developed over time.

Blogs allow for more thorough and developed responses to EQs than other tools I've mentioned here. Students can include a variety of media in their blog posts. Encourage students to comment on classmates' posts to challenge and extend their thinking with regard to the EQ.

Keeping in mind what we know about attention and learning, think about how helpful it is for your students when you give them cues that help them focus on and attend to key information. Essential questions are one approach, and these technology tools can help you use EQs in meaningful ways to deepen students' understanding of key content. What other strategies do you use to help students attend in your classroom? What other tech tools can you use to integrate EQs meaningfully?

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