Just before delving into a new year, during our annual Faculty Academy, faculty and staff took some time to learn from one another about successful teaching and coaching strategies. One such presentation was delivered by English Department Chair, Stephen Watt, who highlighted the unique advantages the department is enjoying by focusing their work around what are called “Essential Questions.”
Essential questions are, simply put, the themes of a class posed in question form. For example, while the basic theme of English 1 is identity, Tabor freshmen explore this idea by considering essential questions such as: “What determines how we view others and how others view us?”, “How much are we really in control of our own identities?”, and “Do we have one identity, or as some suggest, many possible ‘selves’?” Watt said, “A good question is open-ended and dynamic, allowing for ongoing exploration of the question.” Best of all, they are student-centered, meaning that the students need to work out their thoughts and opinions about the question to produce a reasoned and justifiable response. “Class discussions are so much more collaborative and thought-provoking. As the students engage intellectually, they are forced to build their listening skills and to synthesize many ideas.” Having no definite answer also allows multiple perspectives to flourish, which often leads to even deeper questions.
Essential questions are not only useful in the English classroom, but, as Watt noted, could prove beneficial in other disciplines as well such as art, language and culture studies, math, and science. For example, a science teacher might pose the question, “Is aging a disease?”, in order to help students both explore the chemical and biological processes associated with aging, as well as gain a more detailed understanding of what exactly constitutes a disease. Or an art teacher might ask, “To what extent do artists have a responsibility to their audiences?” in order to get at the various ways artists’ can influence their audience through their artwork.
In each case, students need to come up with the answers to these questions on their own. In this way, they are also more likely to retain this information than through using more traditional teacher-centered methods.
The English Department’s focus on essential questions dovetails nicely with a second initiative being spear-headed by history teacher, Wes Chaput: Spider Web discussions.
Chaput has been honing his skills over the last few years to best employ Spider Web discussions in class. Spider Web dialogue provides a collaborative, student-centered way to teach. With this method, the teacher is simultaneously a coach toward knowledge and a source of knowledge; knowledge is built collectively by the participants. Whereas in a traditional discussion, students often respond individually to specific questions posed by the teacher, in a Spider Web-style discussion, the class works to answer several larger, essential questions about the material. This means that in a Spider Web discussion, students must not only participate, but also listen and understand the comments of their classmates, build off other’s ideas, and even respectfully disagree with a fellow student, or summarize the conversation. Teachers serve to design and guide the conversation and encourage the students to do the heavy lifting in answering the questions posed to them. Ideally, students learn to participate in dialogue respectfully and assertively, and they become confident asking questions as well as demonstrating where their knowledge comes from. It is easy to see who is prepared and who is not, and soon students realize that the quality and depth of their learning and understanding depends on their collective commitment to preparation. The purpose to back up positions with examples, quotes, and proven facts, to have everyone participate respectfully, and to seek to understand others points of view through thoughtful questions that build knowledge.
It is a critical skill to be able to consider varied viewpoints, uncover fact from fiction, and weigh the evidence to determine where one stands. Our knowledge and opinions should change with more information, more viewpoints. According to Watt, “One of the best parts of class is when students can look back at earlier discussions about our essential question and see how their opinion may have adapted with more research and questioning.” Through the use of both essential questions and Spider Web discussions, Tabor teachers hope to make true life-long learners out of their students: people who can ask good questions, work collaboratively with others to find the answers, and be self-confident enough to revise their thinking when they encounter new and interesting schools of thought.