Grant Wiggins on Essential Questions

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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images-10Grant Wiggins has been trumpeting the power of Essential Questions for decades — that are designed to cause genuine and relevant inquiry, provoke deep thought and lively discussion, consider alternatives and weigh evidence, and support ideas and justify responses. This featured innovator interview describes what Essential Questions are designed to do and how we can make “room” for them in daily instruction.

Zmuda: What are essential questions designed to do?
Wiggins: Essential questions are designed to make people think. The challenge in teaching lots of stuff is to avoid making students passive, to make students not become trained to believe that learning is just taking what teachers and textbooks say and spitting it back. So we signal that essential questions are goals; the job of every student is to get better and better at asking and persisting in asking really important questions.
Zmuda: How does it inspire the student’s desire and action?
Wiggins: The simple answer to how such action is inspired is that teachers must create a classroom culture where students are enticed and encouraged into constantly questioning. By pursuing thought-provoking teacher questions regularly, students are led to to ask many more questions. It’s not enough to just go with student questions. Because students are naïve and inexperienced, they don’t know the big ideas – especially the counter-intuitive big ideas of the subject. If you want to get students not only inquisitive but also getting to the heart of important ideas, the right kind of questioning has to be modeled by the teacher and built into the curriculum. But once that is set up, once it’s clear that there are these things called essential questions that we are responsible for as a learner, then the student inevitably has lots and lots of questions. And those questions are often really excellent. And the student becomes more motivated to ask them because they flowed naturally from the ongoing work in support of the essential questions.
Zmuda: How much “space” do students need to pursue these questions?
Wiggins: Space is needed in a few different senses. The most basic space is “wait time.” This is one of the points that Jay McTighe and I make in the new book on Essential Questions coming out next March. The most fundamental need is for the teacher to be quiet after asking a question; the wait time research couldn’t be clearer. Not only do more students speak, but more students ask questions and more of them ask more higher-order questions. So, there has to be that most basic kind of space. Then there has to be space after students speak, to make clear that the teacher isn’t going to judge each answer as it comes. That inhibits deep inquiry. Then, there has to be space built into the pacing of the course and the unit. We understand that if we or going to raise these questions there has to be an opportunity for students to pursue them in structured and unstructured ways. The whole point of Socratic seminar, problem-based learning, and interesting projects is to build that space within a focused structure so that the student is within some bounds that make learning likely. But that means there is also space space for students to make meaning, go down “dead ends,” rethink their ideas, and draw thoughtful conclusions from their work.
Zmuda: How can we use technological tools to dialogue about the essential questions both in and out of school?
Wiggins: What technology can do at its most basic is provide people with the opportunity to discuss and collaborate 24 /7. Technology gives the shy or the tentative but deep thinker space to gather thoughts and express them. So, whether it’s through social media sites or a course website within the context of a more formal course learning management system — there’s this opportunity for a very safe space to put one’s ideas out there in response to challenges and questions and problems. The other technological tool in support of inquiry of note are the “clickers” (or any kind of instant response system using a cell phone) where you can get lots and lots of feedback both in looking at your own answers your peers’ answers. That continues to push the students to reexamine and reflect on their thinking.
Zmuda: Some educators would say that it is difficult to cover the standards and still create “space” to pursue essential questions.
Wiggins: I think it’s a gross misunderstanding of standards that they require quick superficial low-level teaching, that they require the smothering of inquiry and questions. I just don’t understand why people think standards mean that you have to teach worse and the tests mean you have to teach worse. Really well-educated students who are used to rigorous challenges do well on tests. I just don’t think this bogeyman of tests has to kill off inquiry. Yes, the fact of the matter is that’s the perception on the part of many teachers and administrators, but in my years of work that fear is not grounded in reality. Educators who succumb to superficial “coverage” usually do so out of a lack of other moves and strategies instructionally. Also, do a thought experiment: where do you see the most constant low-level ‘test prep’ work – in the best schools in America or the weaker schools? In the best schools in America, high-level in-depth inquiry is the norm not the exception.
Zmuda: So, as we move into a new school year, what are three powerful essential questions that educators can consider to reimagine what their job is?
Wiggins: First, “What’s the best use of our time together in class, given our goals?” Second, “Are they learning? What’s the evidence? Third, “Am I on track to achieve my long-term priority goals?” All of these questions depend upon a key self-assessment question: do I have clear long-term priorities? After 30 years in this work, I still find that many educators do not have clear long-term learning goals for the year. They are still “covering stuff” indiscriminately. So it’s a very basic inquiry that every educator has to make about why are we here and what’s the best use of our time in being here. Teaching is not just a checklist of little lessons. That doesn’t add up to a great education. All great teachers have a few clear powerful goals that are woven throughout the year, to give meaning and focus to the work for learners. The students’ question: Why are we learning this? Is an essential question, too!

Grant Wiggins is the President of Authentic Education in Hopewell, New Jersey. He earned his Ed.D. from Harvard University. Grant and his AE colleagues consult with colleges, schools, districts, state and national education departments on a variety of reform matters. Grant is perhaps best known for being the co-author, with Jay McTighe, of Understanding By Design, the award-winning and highly successful program and set of materials on curriculum design used all over the world; and of Schooling by Design. He is a co-author for Pearson Publishing on more than a dozen textbook programs in which UbD is infused. He is the author of Educative Assessment and Assessing Student Performance, both published by Jossey-Bass. His many articles have appeared in such journals as Educational Leadership and Phi Delta Kappan. His work is grounded in 14 years of secondary school teaching and coaching.

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