Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Who should pose the questions?

In their new book, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins re-make the case that questions drive learning. The book provides a framework for understanding what makes a question "essential" (Chapter 1) and, thus, supportive of profound learning and how to use essential questions to design learning environments that engage students (Chapters 3-6). 

While I made several dozen Post-It flag marks throughout the book, two references the authors cited from the education literature especially resonated with me. One referred to work that shows the importance of helping students frame their own questions (Palincsar & Brown, 1984) and the other to recent work that revealed the many instructional techniques - including high-level questioning - that have a greater effect on student learning than socioeconomic status (Hattie, 2009).

McTigue and Wiggins make the point that teacher questions ought to facilitate student questions rather than merely elicit answers. To be essential, teacher questions must be open-ended, thought-provoking, cannot be answered by recall alone, and raise additional questions. However, open-ended doesn't mean without purpose, and this is where deliberate design is critical. The authors make the point that good teacher questions help students inquire into the important ideas related to learning content. When students learn to frame their own questions, they more actively process and make meaning from information and are better able to check their own comprehension. It's the instructional designer's job to use questions to both facilitate student engagement and guide that engagement toward subject matter understanding. McTigue and Wiggins note that "if teachers merely elicit and run with student questions without framing overarching curricular goals and essential questions to support them, then there can be no guaranteed and viable curriculum"

The idea that instructional design can have a greater impact on student achievement than SES, the second important reference, is perhaps evident in a recent study in North Carolina that showed problem-based learning (PBL) environments can uncover previously unrecognized advanced academic potential in low-income students (Gallagher & Gallagher, 2013). PBL models require students to address a problem without sufficient knowledge at the outset to solve the problem.  These models generally include a driving question, focus on real-world issues, require student inquiry and collaboration, allow for student choice, and result in the completion of a product.  A consistent finding in the research is that PBL learning environments facilitate greater student motivation and engagement and improve students’ disposition toward learning. In the North Carolina study, not only did a PBL environment allow low-income students to use higher-order thinking skills previously undetected by fact-based, content knowledge assessments, students for whom PBL revealed advanced academic potential closely resembled traditionally-identified advanced academic students based on measures of student engagement and student product.

Why did it take a PBL environment to discover this potential?

The authors assert that part of the answer is that ill-structured problems or questions (essential, if you will) create situational interest. An inquiry-based environment, they argue, creates a context that supports the inquiring disposition of gifted students and reveals previously hidden advanced academic potential in low-income students who are often not engaged by traditional, fact-oriented instructional environments. Furthermore, the authors contend that engaging students with essential questions "opens the door to full participation, regardless of students' background knowledge."

Finally, McTighe and Wiggins, per their argument in Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, would approve of the fact that the inquiry in the student work this study analyzed was driven by student questions framed within a larger ill-structured problem (or essential question) designed by the teacher around specific standards.

"Thus the question 'Who should pose the questions?' is a false dichotomy," McTighe and Wiggins write. "It is not an issue of teacher questions versus student questions, but of how to blend both in a purposeful manner."

  • Gallagher, S. & Gallagher, J. (2013). Using problem-based learning to explore unseen academic potential. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 7(1), 111-131. 
  • McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, Alexandrai, VA: ASCD.
  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge. 
  • Palinscar, A. & Brown, A. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2), 117-175.

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