How to Outline an Essential Question that Develops Content Knowledge and Engages Students

Relevance, engagement, and motivation —three words tossed around and fretted about in education since students learned how to get teachers and adults to do their work for them.

Teachers constantly look for ways to motivate and engage their students, and that’s a good thing; however, when motivational strategies move into modes of entertainment, learning remains passive and, critical and creative thinking declines because the performance is only relevant to the entertainer.

Time to rethink.

Students need to actively engage in their learning to develop innovative and intelligent thinking skills. Change the focus from entertaining to interesting. Make it an adventure — an exploration and discovery through inquiry. Make it something they have to do themselves to find the answer. In this way, students become active participants in their own learning, develop self-motivation, and learn how to entertain themselves.

Inquiry? Yes!

The key to developing interest in learning stems from the question. In Project Based Learning (PBL), it is called The Essential Question or the Driving Question. Think of it as the controlling idea that controls the path of discovery.

According to Jeffrey D. Wilhelm in his article “Essential Questions”, adding inquiry or starting with an Essential Question made all the difference in the engagement levels of his students.

Turning Essential Questions into Standards-Based Inquiries

Essential questions help teachers outline lessons using content standards to develop content knowledge. These questions begin the inquiry process through activities like those found in PBL units and actively engage students in finding answers and/or solutions.

Look at this example that uses an Essential Question to begin an inquiry into the relevance of the narrative elements of characterization.

1. Ask one Unit Essential Question of a philosophical, thematic, or open-ended nature.
—What strategies do good readers use to understand what they read?

2. Choose a standard to focus the inquiry.
—ELA Standard Focus: Narrative Element – Characterization

3. Ask one Lesson Essential Question for each standard focus
—How does understanding narrative elements help us understand characters’ actions and motivations?

4. Chose five vocabulary words necessary to further understand the standard.
—Character, Plot, Setting, Conflict/Problem-Solution, Motivations, Actions

Now take a look at the same Essential Question as outlined for a standards-based unit that further develops the inquiry process.

Here is another example using two Essential Question outlined for a standards-based unit on the development of democracy .

Essential questions require open-ended inquiry on thematic topics. They prompt students to use critical and creative thinking skills, persuasive and comparative skills, lead to other questions, and ask relevant questions that have meaning to students—and they require students to reflect on their thinking throughout the inquiry process.

Teachers Benefit From Using Essential Questions

Take a look at the way this teacher applied Essential Questions to moniter her professional goals and objectives.

One question:
What atmosphere facilitates powerful learning?

One answer:
An atmosphere of inquiry.

One outcome:
A start to instructional design

Below is another example of the kinds of Essential Questions teachers can ask themselves as they reflect on how they want to approach the ways they
perform their job.

Inquiry Leads to Understanding

Learning starts with the need to know, and the key to making meaning for students, teachers, and most everyone comes in the “Ah-ha!” moment of discovery. The Essential Question begins the inquiry and develops the organized thought processes that drive the exploration—and the thrill of learning comes
with discovering the relevance of the outcome.

So—engage students with well-structured inquiry based instruction,
and they will motive themselves to find answers.

Think-and-Take Lesson #8

The mini-lesson for this week is to emulate one of the outlines above—either for your students or for yourself— or start with an Essential Question in one of the PBL units from GoTeachGo to structure your outline. Then visit Teachers-pay-Teachers to purchase the entire unit.

1. BAM: Body and Mind – Why are children’s life expectancies lower than their parents?
2. Drawing the Line: Global Theme Park Design: What do monuments tell us about the cultures they represent?
3. Head Banger Nation: Does risk of injury mean kids shouldn’t play sports or have fun?
4. Have Passport Will Travel: What are the benefits of planning before you travel?
5. Comic-Con: How do laughter and entertainment enrich our lives?
6. Publish or Perish: How are magazines put together?
7. Selling Out The Kids: How does advertising influence to do things and buy things?
8. Time Travellers: What America be like today if disease and hunger had not taken so many lives?

You can also go to Greenville County School District to access their comprehensive list of Essential Questions.

Be sure to visit TeachersPayTeachers to examine lots of great PBL units of study from GoTeachGo.


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