Essential Questions #2: Changing the Rules

questionsignLast week I wrote about McTighe and Wiggins’ Essential Questions: Opening the Doors to Student Understanding as a resource for developing creativity as well as learning for understanding. Today I’d like to consider the ways the same processes contribute to developing a creativity-friendly classroom. Questions can transform the class world!

grantwigginsRecently, Wiggins posted an excerpt from the book in his blog, Granted, And…. In it, he describes the way a classroom “culture of questioning” requires a change in change in the rules of the typical “school game.” In the traditional school game, the teacher is the source of both questions and answers. S/he asks questions the questions and knows the answers. The resulting pattern of factual questions and brief replies resembles a quiz show quizshowmore than an environment of inquiry. But it also is comfortable territory for most students—regardless of whether they meet with success. Students know the rules of the game; it is predictable and familiar. Everyone knows the “positions,” from hand-waving enthusiast to silent corner-sleeper. I’ll bet you could point them out in your classroom.

But change is neither familiar nor predictable, and is not always popular–especially when rules change. Sports blogs are full of outraged commentary on virtually any alteration in professional sports rules  Reactions to changes in school processes can be similar. Moving toward meaningful inquiry  is to shift to unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. Students who have been happy and successful in the old game suddenly find themselves challenged to think again or think of another way. Students who could safely disengage, decline to answer, or shrug away their lack of information are confronted with the possibility their thoughts might be needed—and that their distance from the class conversation is no longer acceptable. It is no wonder that initial efforts to more toward deeper classroom inquiry can be met with resistance.

Wiggins describes cues teachers can use to help students know the “rules of the game” have changed.

      • “There’s not a single correct answer for this question. Life is about the consideration of plausible and imperfect alternatives.”
      • “Coming to understand important ideas is like fitness: it takes practice over time.”
      • “When a question is posted on the wall, it means that we are going to consider it again and again.”
      • “Inquiry is not a spectator sport: each of you needs to listen actively and participate.”
      • “Everyone is fair game. I won’t only call on people who raise their hands.”
      • “If and when I or others challenge your comment, it doesn’t mean we don’t like you or don’t value your contribution.”
      • “Making mistakes is an expected part of learning. If you never take a risk of making a mistake, you’re not likely to improve.”
      •  “You may find that you are re-considering things that you thought you understood. That is normal – even desirable.”

I would suggest that basic instruction in the nature of questioning will also help. Why not directly teach students that there are times when you do want the one correct answer, and other times when it is important to explore multiple answers. Promise to let them know which one you are seeking. When the goal is clear, you are much more likely to reach it, and will be happier along the way.

What other cues have you used to help transition students to more inquiry-focused conversations?


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