Opening Doors to Student Understanding  

December 23, 2013

I have recently read Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, the latest book from curriculum gurus Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. I chose to read this book because one of my goals is to improve the curriculum design and curriculum alignment processes used by teachers in ESU 10, and writing high-quality essential questions should be a key part of that process. Through reading this book, I was able to gain a deeper understanding of essential questions, the role they play in curriculum design, and how to help teachers in crafting effective essential questions. As McTighe and Wiggins so eloquently point out, “the whole idea of essential questions is to signal that the question, not the answer, is what matters” (p. 86).

  Defining Characteristics of Essential Questions:
  Open-ended - no single, final, correct answer
  Thought-provoking & intellectually engaging - sparks discussion & debate
  Require higher-order thinking - analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction
  Point toward important, transferable ideas - within & across disciplines
  Raise additional questions
  Require support and justification
  Recur over time

There was also a chapter in the book devoted to how school leaders can implement the use of essential questions with all staff and use them as tools for school reform. The following are some of the quotes that particularly resonated with me:

No initiative, practice or policy is guaranteed to succeed. As with any seed to be planted, the soil must be ready and conducive to growth. The seedbed of education involves the beliefs, values, structures, routines, protocols, and climate that influence actions, shape attitudes, and affect learning. A healthy culture is one in which everyone shares aims and acts in concert to advance them.” (p. 42)

“...numerous ... school- and district- level reforms failed to take root or endure because leaders assumed that teachers would embrace them on face value. Indeed, it is often the failure to make a case for the reform that dooms the initiative. ... Unless staff and other constituents understand the need for a change and it’s implications for their work, it is less likely to be embraced and enacted with fidelity.” (pp. 102-103)

...examining an issue in intellectually honest ways using essential questions will take longer than simply mandating actions. Certainly, leaders can simply issue directives ... but mandates rarely engender understanding and commitment among professionals, and sometimes they have the opposite effect.” (p. 105)

Any effort made by a leader to initiate change is going to require a significant amount of time and work to create buy-in and foster support among the staff. I need to keep this in mind as I work with administrators and teachers in ESU 10 as I work to support them in implementing changes.

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

-by Emily Jameson, Professional Development Coordinator