When I began teaching in December of 1999 I was literally fresh out of college and borderline clueless. I stood staring at students who almost appeared to be licking their chops. Before me, they had a teacher who literally had a breakdown and two shaky substitute teachers. One of them even whispered to me, “good luck” as she left the classroom during my observation of the class. I was about to become another notch on their desktops. And at the age of 23, I was fresh meat. I wrote my name and rules on the board. They snickered. I wrote down notes and requested they copy. They rolled their eyes. To say that my first year was a battle from start to finish would be almost like saying health insurance can be a bit pricey.
Every year thereafter, keeping students on-task and responsible for their own education from bell to bell has become progressively easier. The district I currently work has implemented a “learning focused” format, complete with starting a class with something called an ‘Essential Question.” By no means is an Essential Question a new idea; but some may not understand its true value in a classroom setting. For new teachers (and even us wily veterans) it can be the difference between classroom clarity and chaos.
A clearly written essential question should tell students what they will be learning as an end result to the day’s lesson. It should also be a backdrop for higher order thinking skills such as evaluation and applied knowledge. There should not be a vague mystery as to what the essential question means, nor should it be so simplistic that it can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” response. Students have a tendency to rebel when classwork objectives are not displayed clearly and concisely, or when a teacher appears befuddled and unknowing about the direction the class is going. Clarity in an essential question is key to giving students a “heads-up” about what they will be learning in class on a given day and also helps control and steer the class toward a final productive conclusion.
I recall being in a teacher’s class in the eighth grade (My apologies go out to Ms. Hertling) and she had nothing on the board. Brand new out of college, she tried imposing her will on us in a “I am your teacher but also your friend” mentality. Nope. Didn’t work. Looking back, she did everything in her power to keep us focused, except to give us a direction in the beginning of class. Writing an essential question on the board may very well have assisted this struggling teacher as she learned the hard way. Many of us rebelled, stared into space, or secretly sympathized with the bewildered new educator.
Finally, consider this analogy: do people typically get behind the wheel of their car with no discernible clue as to their destination? Well, maybe some of us do, but most bring a map, a GPS device, and knowledge that we must get from Point A to Point B in a specified amount of time. And, unless we have our own personal chauffeur, we know this is our responsibility. Much in the same way, an Essential Question is a student’s GPS unit. It gives them the map and guidance as they travel through their educational regimen. It makes them the responsible party for being able to decipher and answer this question by the end of class or to “ask for directions” if they do not comprehend. And is this not what we want in the long run in an educational setting? Students who take the wheel of their education-fueled vehicle and traverse the dips and peaks of life to their own self-appointed Point B?
In this one instance, the Essential Question can be acknowledged in a one word answer: Yes.