"Why do we have to learn this?"
"Will I ever need to know this in my life?"
"Why should I care about this?"
Maybe you haven't heard these questions exactly, but almost every middle school teacher has been faced with some variation on them.
When I design my curricular units, I think very hard about these questions. It is so important that students be able to see the value in what they're learning. Not everything you teach has an obvious purpose to your students. If they can't find purpose, they will not internalize what they're learning. Meaningful learning can only happen when what students learn matters to them.
One of the most effective ways to achieve meaningful learning is to design your curricular units around GUIDING QUESTIONS, also called ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS. If you frame your activities, projects, and reading around these questions, the students will have something to anchor what they do in the real world.WHAT IS A GUIDING QUESTION?
In Jeffrey Wilhelm's excellent book, Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry,he writes:
"Guiding questions create a clearly focused problem orientation for our studies that connects kids to socially significant material and learning. This in turn leads to exciting conversations that bring together the students' lives, the course content, and the world in which we live as we consolidate major concepts, vocabulary, strategies, and ideas." (p.8)
Guiding questions are a framework for a topic. Using them takes the onus off the teacher to convey all of the concepts and information and puts it on the students to investigate the questions and find answers that they can apply in their everyday lives.
WHY USE GUIDING QUESTIONS?
We all want our classrooms to be dynamic places that are student-centered rather than teacher- oriented. We could just cover the topic, force feed the information to the students and let them regurgitate it on a test or quiz. But by using guiding questions, we are asking the students to find the answers. It's very motivating. We ask the questions and frontload the necessary material; then the students investigate, analyze, and demonstrate knowledge of the underlying concepts. In this way, we create classrooms of inquiry, where real world problems are discussed and contemplated.WRITING GUIDING QUESTIONS
In order to write effective guiding questions, you have to consider a few things first: What do you want the students to get out of this unit? What real world issues do you want the unit to address? How much time do you have to implement the unit? It's important to think about this last question because it's important for your students to see success. You need to be sure that they can get a full understanding of the topic and go far in investigating the topic before you run out of time!
Wilhelm offers a list of criteria that guiding questions must meet, including:
-A guiding question "addresses the 'heart of the discipline' being studied. Essential disciplinary knowledge will be required to answer it."
-A guiding question "is open-ended, possible to contend, arguable. It must be complex enough to house multiple perspectives and possible answers."
-A guiding question "possesses emotive force, intellectual bite, or edginess." Students should be able to engage in quality discussions about the topic.
-A guiding question "may lead to new questions asked by the students." (p.44)
For my unit on Utopias, during which the students read The Giver, I wrote the following guiding questions: Are humans capable of creating and maintaining a Utopian society? Why or why not? What might a true Utopian society look like?
Using these questions as a guide for the unit, the students engage in a variety of activities aimed at finding answers. They research the concept of a Utopia, investigate real world attempts at creating Utopian societies, read The Giver and discuss the merits and drawbacks of that society, and complete a project wherein they attempt to design their own Utopian societies from the ground up.
For my unit on Conflict and Justice in the Community, during which the students read Touching Spirit Bear, I wrote these guiding questions: What is our responsibility to deal with those who are in conflict with the community? Can alternative forms of justice work? What might these look like? Are they necessary?
Using these questions, the students investigate and evaluate various alternative justice programs across the world, discuss Touching Spirit Bear and how communities should deal with troubled teens, and design their own alternative justice program that addresses the issues raised in class.PLANNING A UNIT WITH GUIDING QUESTIONS
Units framed with guiding questions should be planned in the following steps: First, write your guiding questions. Identify what learning needs to be done to address the questions, what Wilhelm calls "the heart of the matter." Next, create a final project for the unit. Upon completion of the project, students should be able to demonstrate their understanding of the real world issues raised in the guiding questions. Finally, plan the sequence of activities and readings that moves the students down the path toward mastering these concepts and developing the "expert tools they will use in their final projects." (p.39)
I've noticed a number of differences in my classroom since I started implementing guiding questions. The students are engaged in discussions that have greater meaning and depth now. We do more than just talk about a book. We study a real world concept and use the literature as a kind of jumping off point for our investigations. in addition, the level of student engagement in these units has increased tremendously. They have a stake in finding these answers because the answers can affect their lives. Using guided questions brings out the best in me as a teacher because I'm teaching things that matter. I'm a facilitator, a guide for the students in their own investigations of problems that require real world solutions. The guiding questions bring out the best in the students, too, because they are challenging and shaping their own beliefs and understandings with each unit. I say that's a win-win situation.
Work cited: Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. (2007). Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry. New York: Scholastic.