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Making learning ESSENTIAL for struggling students

Years ago,working in an affiliate school of Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, I became intimately knowledgeable with backwards planning that centered around an essential question.  What I found then and still find today is that for struggling students, whether it is because of language development, motivation, or any other potential academic roadblocks, making learning meaningful and relevant provides the BEST opportunities for academic growth.  And the best way to do this? Start and end with essential questions!

What makes a question ESSENTIAL?

Essential questions are open-ended, critical thinking questions that sit high up on Bloom's taxonomy. Essential questions challenge students to make connections between school materials, learning, and a more complex idea, entity, or purpose and generally lead to a product-based outcome to demonstrate the connections.

Maybe most important of all, however, essential questions give students power and control over their own learning.  Think of it as giving the keys to a teen driver while you're sitting in the passenger seat.  As the key passenger, you must continue to guide, make suggestions on improvement, and teach the driver a few things while on the road, but the teen is nonetheless still the driver.

For a great, detailed explanation of essential questions, see http://www.oakcrest.net/news/essential.pdf

How do you use them in your planning?

The premise of backwards planning is that the end product or assessment of learning is designed FIRST with the supportive activities, learning experiences, etc. designed to support the end result.  By adding an essential question to the mix, students and teachers can continuously refer to an over-arching basis of inquiry that keeps not only students on track, but helps teachers with designing formative assessments along the way to ensure students are preparing for the end product.

Two key texts, Understanding by Design and The Understanding by Design Handbook (McTighe and Wiggins) helped me understand that the creating of essential questions is simply taking content standards and outcome statments and rephrasing them into question form.

For example:  Here is a well known CA ELA Standard for 9th and 10th grade:

Reading Comprehension 2.8:  Evaluate the credibility of an author's argument or defense of a claim by critiquing the relationship between generalizations and evidence, the comprehensiveness of evidence, and the way in which the author's intent affects the structure and tone of the text

To make learning relevant and eventually enduring to a student, this very wordy standard can be rewritten as one or more essential questions:

  • What makes a person credible or believable?
  • What's the difference between facts and opinions?  Which do I believe more?
  • Why do writers write?  Why do I write?

Essential questions can also be as specific to fit an exact theme or idea:

  • If a teen commits a crime, would justice be served if he/she were punished like an adult who commits the same crime?

  • What are some personal qualities that people must have in order to survive a difficult situation?

Essential questions can be broader to extend ideas to a universal idea or theme:

  • How do we form and shape our identities?

  • What does it mean to be a member of society?

Whichever sort of essential questions teachers choose to use a the anchor to inquiry, it is critical that it is prominently displayed in the classroom, on student handouts, and is referenced in each class meeting.  It is, after all, THE purpose for learning for you and your students.

 Backwards planning with essential questions:

The essential question is the "engine" to drive students to one or more desired learning outcomes.  Many times, I have seen teachers use the essential question as the end result, which leaves students without "closure" (for lack of a better term) to the unit.  An enduring idea or understanding is critical for students to look back on to recall the essential question that led them to that understanding.

Attached is a template I use based on McTighe and Wiggins strategies and share with my colleagues to assist with unit planning. Enjoy!

Here are some GREAT websources of school districts who incorporate great essential questions to assist you in your adventures with implementing essential questions.  You won't regret it!




XOXO, Patty

Download Backwards Design Template for Unit Planning


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Inside Patty's High School Grade Classroom are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.