My favorite pedagogical tool is the essential question. Briefly, these attempt to focus student attention on the broader implications and deeper meanings behind content. I had been using them in my own quaint way before reading Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe, and that reading both confirmed my intuition and pushed my use of this strategy to a higher level.

According to Wiggins and McTighe, essential questions aim to

stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions — including thoughtful student questions — not just pat answers. They are broad, full of transfer possibilities. The exploration of such questions enables us to uncover the real riches of a topic otherwise obscured by glib pronouncements in texts or routine teacher-talk. (106)

The authors suggest that “deep and transferable understandings depend upon framing work around such questions” and that “uncoverage is a priority, not a frill or an option if time is left over after learning other ‘stuff’” (106). I train teachers to teach, and I have found that most in-service teachers want tips and tricks, and fun ways to solve common problems in the classroom. However, my courses don’t deal in tips and tricks, so many teacher-trainees react somewhat negatively to my deeper inquiries. Essential questions help me effectively navigate this impasse.

I use essential questions to encourage deeper thought about broader issues, as jumping off points for teachers interested in trying creative solutions to common problems, and to help teachers learn to ask their own big questions, to really take ownership of their classroom, to find their own answers creatively and improve practice. Once trainees learn to let solutions to common problems emerge through guided inquiry, they can start asking questions more immediately relevant to specific issues they find in their classes.

The first time I was hired by the Ecuadorean Ministry of Education to author a professional development course about formative assessment, they emphasized how I must explore previous knowledge at every possible opportunity. They reasoned that we are asking teachers to make a significant cognitive leap through this course, and the leap can too easily get disconnected from their experience as students and teachers and from their intuition regarding how to assess.

A couple of years later the Ministry asked me to keep this principle front and center for an online training module for public university teachers interested in training others through online courses. Essentially, I was training the trainers. I turned to my trustworthy Understanding by Design textbook to explore how the essential question could best be employed in this new setting. An effective use would allow me to help students explore their previous knowledge of core content and provide a springboard to probe the complexity of each topic beyond content.

Trainees for this online teacher training course were selected by nearly all public universities in the country, responding to the Ministry’s invitation to register only the “best of the best” of their teachers. The 17 participants were truly the most highly trained, most experienced and brightest among Ecuadorean public university teachers interested in online learning. Now they have gained essential insights into learning that will serve their need to design powerful online learning experiences.

Together with exploring previous knowledge, I decided to use essential questions to help “students effectively inquire and make sense of important but complicated ideas, knowledge, and know-how — a bridge to findings that experts may believe are settled but learners do not yet grasp or see as valuable” (Wiggins and McTighe 109). The following are examples:

  • What role does an online instructor play? How is this different from an onsite teacher?
  • What does it mean to accompany a teacher in his/her learning?
  • What actions can an online teacher take to celebrate the strengths and strengthen the weaknesses of a typical Ecuadorean public school teacher?
  • Can the pedagogical principles promoted by SíProfe (arm of the Ministry that trains teachers) be effectively implemented in online courses?

Trainees answered in a forum before doing readings, highlighting their collective previous knowledge. I had hoped for some ideas to play off of each other. After trainees put initial ideas in the forum, some interaction was achieved. Then, to my surprise, throughout the unit, students kept feeding the forum, and it really heated up. I very rarely felt the need to jump in, but I did anyway because I found myself sucked in to exploring the topics from new perspectives. Ideas evolved to incorporate insights gained in the readings and activities, effectively evidencing metacognition around each question.

From the second week on, trainees facilitated these forums, and they unfolded in new ways and empowered the trainees to be more intrepid in their opinions. I was astounded at how my onsite small group discussions — held around essential questions in previous courses on different subjects — paled to those carried out in the online forum. Although trainees focused their energy on finding consensus around answers — the first step in exploring essential questions — an overabundance of ideas flourished in these spaces.

Trainees then wrote their final answer to each question individually in their online learning logs, to which only the trainee and I had access, for my feedback. The rubric for the learning log called on trainees to reflect on their answers by describing personal experiences as students and/or teachers that exemplify their own strengths and weaknesses with the issue. They were also guided to cite ideas put forward by their classmates in the forum, quote from the readings, and describe experiences gained throughout the unit to better illustrate their points. Because the forums had blossomed so unexpectedly, I thought this would be a fairly simple transference from the forum to the learning log.

The dynamic of moving from a forum into a private space highlighting critical thinking and reflection proved to be extremely challenging. Trainees would focus on providing objective, “correct” answers to the questions without putting themselves in the hot seat. They would identify, for example, certain qualities that distinguish an online instructor from an onsite teacher, but they found it difficult to justify their answers from their own experiences. I kept asking them, “How do you know this new answer you have is better than your old understanding? What evidence do you have?” Stringing insightful experiences and new understanding with previous knowledge to make their answers’ evolutions explicit seemed an insurmountable obstacle. Even though the forums provided clear evidence of metacognition, trainees had a hard time stepping back from the forum to see and later express their learning process in terms easily associated with metacognition (eg. before I understood…, now I can see…, etc.). The metacognitive process had taken a back seat to the search for concrete or pat answers.

So, how do these cognitive struggles make them better online instructors? What lessons can be learned from this for training online instructors?

Good online instructors try innovative design strategies because their experience coincides with theory. As novice online instructors, they will need to pair their experiences as onsite learners and teachers with insights gained in their online teacher training course to make sound design decisions. Only when a theory is justified through direct experience can it make sense and become a potentially effective teaching / design strategy. Expecting trainees to magically gain this capacity once they are at the helm of an online course would prove disastrous. Therefore teacher-trainees need to learn how to bring experiences, theory and insights gained through reflection into a broader understanding of how people learn.

Others may argue that a set of essential questions posed each week, and the reading, interacting and reflecting implied in answering them, can afford limited depth, which may not be sufficient to act as a solid foundation for designing effective learner experiences. If seen as separate sets of questions that end and start over each week, then that would make sense. However, because it’s not the answers we are after, but the learning process, the iterative character of the essential question strategy demonstrates its power. Incisive formative feedback made in comments on Google docs that generated lots of discussion pushed trainees towards these insights so that the entries for the following week would already incorporate them. Learning log entries gained accumulated depth with each passing week and trainees steadily honed the skill of synthesizing experience and theory and projecting them into design insights. Most trainees really gathered steam with this in the fifth week of the six week course so that the sixth week felt like a victory lap.

Those who searched for insights rather than answers began to see it as a necessary challenge, and even to enjoy it by the end.

For the final assessment of the course trainees made narrated presentations directed to their future online students describing their commitment and strategies they would use to accompany them in their learning process. Trainees established empathy by describing their own process of becoming an online instructor, the questions they had before receiving training and some answers they had come up with that helped them make design decisions for their own courses. This made their metacognition explicit in language that novices to online courses could understand. I could also tell that trainees were getting it when their reflections led them to naturally ask their own essential questions both to their peers in the forum and to themselves in the learning logs.

By making my teaching strategies transparent in the first unit of the course (called “This Course Design”), especially those regarding the essential questions that framed each unit, trainees understood what would be expected of them throughout the course. They could see that the readings and activities in each unit would inspire them to answer the essential questions in such a way as to visualize the contrast between their previous and their new knowledge.

For onsite and online courses I have used the essential question to help teacher trainees springboard off content to effectively explore deeper issues relevant to the topic under study. Essential questions act as a bridge that trainees themselves build to connect theory with their practice to find causes for difficulties they experience in their classes, and feel empowered to begin taking steps towards their resolution.

[Photo by whatmegsaid]