Ask a good question, create even more good questions

And so I ask you Neo, which will you choose?  The blue pill takes you back to your bed and the reality you are comfortable with.  Choose the red pill and I show you just how far down the rabbit hole goes.

We want questions that blow our minds when we answer them.  And by answer them I do not mean we come up with the answer that we put in a box, gift wrap and put a little bow on it.  I’m talking about answers that we wrestle with, we entangle ourselves in, we work and rework, correct and edit, because through this process we are gaining insight into our lives and the world around us.  As educators, it is our ability to pose thought provoking, inspiring, mind blowing questions that will take our students down so many rabbit holes they wake up dazed and confused and in an entirely new reality…they are freed from the Matrix.

essential questions, engaged learning

Ask questions so our students make choices in the learning process. Send them down the rabbit hole.

The Essential Question is a good place to start any unit, or lesson, or every class for that matter because it forces the mind to engage.  For example, if I say, “Okay my young minds of the future (or some other endearing label you have for your students), let me tell you about the Fall of the Roman Empire and the chaos that ensued around Europe as the people lost all hope of protection and security as their world fell apart.”  It’s interesting sure.  Filmmakers have car chases and explosions for a reason but when the dust settles, the masses tend to drift off after Ryan Reynolds emerges from the wreckage, shirt torn yet face still pretty, and starts talking.  Information delivery, no matter how exciting the story, will engage a young mind for only so long before it drifts away (about 13 minutes for the average middle school student before drift off).

Take this topic and begin a different way:  What would you do to survive if you lost all that keeps you safe?  No government, no police, no school, just you and your family left to figure out how to survive.  What would you do?

Now the idea of the destruction of a civilization takes on an entirely different meaning because the essential question forces the student to put themselves in the place of a Roman or any other person in history who has seen their civilization collapse and think about how they would handle it.  It is a question that does not have the single answer floating around out there.  It cannot be “googled.”  A student cannot lean over and copy the “smart kid’s” answer.  The question requires a number of other questions to be asked first before tackling the answer:  What do I do for food? Can I stay in my house and be safe? Should I form alliances with neighbours for protection? What are the most important skills I need to stay alive?

 I just love these kind of activities.  Some essential questions lead to unit projects that take all week while others provide a solid 20 minute journal write.  The key is that we ask kids these kinds of questions all the time.  We constantly challenge them to dig into their grey matter and build neural connections that light up light Christmas trees so that they begin to ask their own questions about the world around them.  There is nothing better than having a student make an observation and ask a question right out of the blue.  I’ll finish with an example.
We were in Hawaii with the Sr. Boys basketball team, on the beach, enjoying a hot December day in a tropical paradise, when we saw the statue of King Kamehameha.  A player asked, “Hey Mr. Rowe, why is this the United States when this king and his people were the ones here on the island?”  You can imagine the discussion sparked from this question and the following questions and discussions we had over the course of the next hour or so.

Action Steps

Make a list of your units for the year and list the learning objectives under each unit.  Now take each objective and develop at least 3 Essential Questions for each. Remember that a good essential question is:
  • open ended
  • not Googleable (is that a word now?)
  • leads to other questions
And you’re well on your way to stirring up the magic in your classroom.

Meet the Author

I am living the dream as a Middle School magician in Langley, BC. I am co-creator of The Magic Classroom and a team leader and presenter in School District #35. I'm excited to be speaking at AMLE 2015 in Columbus, Ohio in October and at Ignite 35 in Langley in September.