Recently, I have been focusing on how to create essential questions. These five key points are so useful!. If you want some spubject specific examples, click on Onhand School’s Essential Questions Guide.
Here are the five specific features of a quality essential question identified in the guide:
- Core-focused: The learning objective poses the question. It is the essence of what students should examine and know in a course of study. The same question can be re-asked throughout a main subject (for example, Math), but with increasing levels of sophistication.
- Inquiry-based: The question is open-ended and resists an obvious simple or single right answer. It precludes a creative choice that transforms the search for knowledge.
- Reinforce Thinking Skills: Requires students to draw upon content knowledge, personal experience, and other information they have gathered to construct their own answers. It causes students to search for an answer using critical thinking (ultimately using Bloom’s higher order thinking).
- Interdisciplinary: They usually lend themselves to multidisciplinary investigations, requiring for example, that students apply the skills and perspectives of math and language arts to social studies or science.
- Engaging: Should be created to provoke and sustain student interest. Engaging questions are thought provoking, likely to produce interesting student questions, and take into consideration diverse interests and learning styles.
Superstar AIW Coach Katy Evenson sent this blog our way. It's a fun activity for a learner of any age. Here is the prompt:
Recently my leadership coach presented me with a challenge: write about what you have learned in your years of experience as a school leader that you bring to the new position you have begun this year. The task sparked my imagination as I remembered the young educator I was thirteen years ago when I began my first principalship and sixteen years ago when I began my first school administrative position. What is it I believed then, I wondered, and what is it I believe now?
Check out how the blogger responded. What about you?
The 2012-2013 academic year marked the beginning of district-wide AIW implementation in the Monticello Community School District. A recurring question throughout the district has been how to construct tasks with high levels of value beyond school. At the elementary level a fourth grade science teacher and a language arts teacher teamed up to create a task that would meet this challenge. They never imagined this task would end up influencing audiences outside the community of Monticello.
The teachers identified the concepts of systems and producing text by narrowing them into a persuasive writing project about human body systems. The students had to construct knowledge about human body systems and how they are affected by healthy and unhealthy choices. The teachers facilitated students as they took the role of being scientists needing to support their findings with their writing. Through elaborated communication, students created final products to educate and persuade younger students and the public of the importance of healthy lifestyles. Their products were displayed in health service related businesses throughout Monticello and surrounding communities. Some made it as far away as the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics.
Students used concepts from science and language arts in a practical way to influence audiences out of their classroom. This was one example in which teachers found a way to meet the challenge of implementing value beyond school with their students.
Just thought I'd let you know I had an ah hah! moment today. The kids are reading a historical fiction novel then writing a newspaper focusing on one particular battle of the Civil War from the novel. I was afraid of it turning into a "fluff" project because they would probably just rewrite whatever articles they happened to read, until I started thinking what I really wanted out of them relating to AIW. Rather than a simple report they should collect facts, interpret what happened based on the facts collected, make an analysis of the two sides (what advantages/disadvantages), make an evaluation as to why one side was able to win (draw a conclusion), then synthesize (create an article about the battle that is completely new) an article.
Check out Sarah Brown Wessling's Mid-Year keynote from the 2013 Iowa AIW Mid-Year Institute, sponsored by Heartland Area Education Agency (AEA 11). This event was hosted by Gilbert Community School District in February 2013.
Recently, Greg Anrig, an important voice in American public policy mentioned our AIW work in Iowa in his blog, Tearing Down Classroom Walls. I posted the response below and would love to hear from any teachers and administrators at AIW schools. Does this account jibe with your experience? Please don’t hesitate to post a comment here or on Anrig’s blog, or even on our Center FaceBook site. Let’s use social media to share more perspectives on how to transform American schools!
This blog is a great start for a larger conversation about how American education evolves in the 21st century. As you've pointed out, the work in Iowa included teachers working with one another to analyze the quality of their assignments and instruction against the standards for Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW) in teams with 4 to 6 members. While we did not require schools to create interdisciplinary teams, we did find that the departmental silos typical in high school settings dissolved more quickly and staff from all disciplines came to know, understand, and respect one another's work. This shift seems to help the learning climate.
For us, the key ingredient to impacting student learning comes through de-privatizing the classroom regardless of an AIW team's membership. Teachers involved in AIW reform come to see the responsbility for change lies with them and that they are up to the challenge of improving the quality of what they offer students. They collaborate about their pedagogy and revise lessons and assignments rather than point out student shortcomings. Subsequently, student engagement increases along with their performance in school.
When administrators engage in the reform work right along with their teachers there is another striking impact on climate.. The vertical hierarchy's intensity appears to soften. Trust is born when everyone repeatedly shares ineffective lessons and works on the revisions together. When students are successful, the team celebrates. The shared mission of transforming students' lives generates energy and fosters civic discourse, intellectual risk taking, and yes, higher standardized test scores. Ironically, for the schools truly involved in AIW, high test scores become footnotes to the far loftier goal of fostering young scholarship and civic responsibility for tomorrow's world.
When working with teachers new to AIW, there is often a moment when a few eager teachers get overwhelmed by the thought of revising their entire curriculum. At that point, most coaches refer to a quote on the bottom of page 72 in the “Blue book,” Authentic Instruction and Assessment: Common Standards for Rigor and Relevance in Teaching Academic Subjects, where teachers are encouraged to move the percentage of high scoring lessons from 10-15% up to say 50%; nowhere do we advocate 100%.
The truth is that there are times when it is not only appropriate, but also necessary for students to practice what they’ve learned. For both the student and the teacher, the key is knowing when you are doing it, why you are doing it, and how long is long enough! Although I can’t supply a simple answer, I can offer a personal anecdote, where as the student, I was given just the right “drill” time.
In fall of 2010 I decided I would join my husband at doing a triathlon instead of just watching him. My first step was to join the Master’s Swim class at the YWCA. It seemed logical, so I showed up, excited to share my goals with the rest of the swimmers as we each introduced ourselves. Then into the pool we plunged to whip out our first 50 yards.
I’m not sure what I looked like—all I know is that the coach (Beth) very kindly pulled me aside and suggested I not return until, in short, I learned how to swim. She suggested I start with the basic stroke class that met on Sunday afternoons. I’m sure I nodded in agreement, bewildered and quite out of breath. Honestly, I was shocked and my pride was a little hurt, but I really had no alternative except to swallow that pride and begin a long journey to relearn how to swim.
Fast forward to this past fall 2012. I had in fact learned a ton and actually successfully completed an Olympic distance triathlon in August, which required I swim just under a mile before moving on to the other events. This had gone pretty well—mainly because I neither drowned nor quit the race. So I was again full of confidence as I showed up to give Master’s Swim class another try. This time I could swim 100 yards in under 2 minutes; yet, alas, again the coach pulled me aside. “You are doing really well,” Beth said, “but your right elbow is dropping and your six-beat kick is going to wear you out before you even get to biking and running. Why don’t you take some lessons?”
The second time of being redirected out of the “gifted” class back to a scaffolded and individualized learning opportunity did not prick my pride nearly as much the second time. I dropped out of Masters Swim and met with Beth privately. She was not only encouraging, but I could see she was really looking at the big picture of my swimming and felt confident that she could devise a series of drills that would break me of my motor-like kick and replace it with the slow, imperceptible swish-swish of a two-beat kick. I was psyched!
That is until I tried it. It felt more like I was immobile in the water waiting only to sink like a stone to the bottom of the pool. In fact, I couldn’t even do the drills without sheer panic. I tried a plastic noodle to keep my hips afloat, a pull buoy to prevent my legs from automatically flailing, and even a flotation belt old ladies use in water aerobics. Each time I needed them less. My only goal was to do the drills she gave me, week after week. There was no HOT needed on my part, just practice. And so I committed to this drudgery. She told me I could come back to Master’s Swim class when I could hold eight 100-yard sets at two minutes without reverting back to a six-beat kick. Miraculously, I finally achieved this my final swim of 2012.
So, you have probably guessed right — I did go back to Master’s Swim class, last Thursday. Not only did I stay, but I also led my lane in our workout: 1600 yards, 4 (4x100) at 2:30. Of course, I was in the slow lane, but who cares. It was amazing. You might think I credit my success to my own perseverance. Sure, that helped, but in truth, I credit it to my teacher. Beth’s knowledge of swimming and her willingness to break down what was wrong with my technique and dole out small chunks of learning for me to practice over short periods of time combined with her faith that I could do it is where the credit lies. In truth, my willingness to stick with it came from believing her when she said I would be faster and more efficient in the end. She was right!
The lesson I took away was a deep reminder that when remove away the thinking and give students drills, they better be short-lived, to the point, and yield a gain so sweet only the student knows!
HAPPY NEW YEAR AIW FAMILY!
I wish you these simple thoughts for 2013!
1. Depend on the Power of the Collective
2. Be Organic on your journey
3. Be Authentic
4. Take Risks
These four ideas frame the Center for Authentic Intellectual Work’s Four Guiding Principles. In fact, they have always been an intrinsic part of our reform work; but in more recent months, they have moved into the forefront of our thinking and serve as a lens through which we make choices about new projects, analyze partner readiness, and examine the credibility of an organization’s AIW reform implementation. Together they effectuate change, providing a fulcrum for AIW and other related professional development that impacts learning.
So why write about them on the precipice of a New Year? Quit simply, I have a confession and a New Year’s Resolution.
I hate blogging. I always have, and each time I’m “required” to do so for the Center, it’s arduous in the best of times. Although I was vaguely in touch with my enmity, it wasn’t until this winter break in the midst of a holiday chitchat that I came to understand the angst more deeply.
In the spirit of holiday gatherings, I took time to catch up with old friends. In the conversation I’m referencing now, our chatter veered towards work. Tom (a professor at a prominent university) was regaling writing plans for this spring’s sabbatical and lit up when talking about catching up on the theoretical papers he had put off writing. I found this crazy because I hate writing for peer reviewed journals and said so. Tom proceeded to say that he has no problem generating text for journals but that grant writing was his nemesis. This made no sense to me at the time because I personally prefer grant writing to journal writing any day.
Upon reflection, I came to realize something very important. Tom is comfortable writing articles because he is an academician; it is the writing he formally learned in graduate school. As a professor, it is the kind of writing he reads. So it makes sense that after engulfing himself in this genre, communicating in kind would come naturally.
Tom is, in fact, actualizing the four principles:
- Writing peer reviewed journal articles is how he leverages the power of the collective, where his "collective" includes other scholars who have conceptual familiarity with his premises, as opposed the more adversarial community of grant readers and fellow scholars competing for the same funds.
- As for being organic, the scholarly journey of research is by nature organic, and as a tenured professor, you establish the theoretical questions worth pursuing. For Tom, doing research is by nature an organic process because each finding takes him to a deeper understanding, fueling a personal quest for more data, in turn raising more questions worth investigating.
- And within an academic’s world, the authentic way to share your findings is through peer reviewed journals. Tom willingly “constructs his own knowledge” and makes sense of his findings. The act of sharing a review of the literature he’s read and the methods he used to collect the data he used to arrive at his conclusions embody the essence of “disciplined Inquiry.” The “value beyond” the article is its inherent contribution to the field and other scholars' work.
- So, of course, the risk-taking involved in putting your work out there for consumption is not only worth it, it’s invigorating— if you are confident that your methods and processes are sound and that your implications help shed light on a persisting problem or have relevance for others’ research.
But for Tom, grant writing has none of these authentic qualities; it is, in essence, the professor’s equivalent of the mandatory five paragraph essay, where you try hard to tell the teacher/grant reader what you think they want to hear instead of sharing the points that hold meaning for you. In this way it is contrived, immobilizing the writer’s energy and enthusiasm for the task at hand.
Can you see the light bulbs going off? The parallel between my understanding of Tom's aversion to grant writing and my own enmity towards blogging is best revealed by also filtering my experience through the same four principles:
When I have blogged for the Center ...
- The collective audience is invisible and broad. I feel I’m writing to no one, and in that space I feel alone, not part of a collective, and certainly devoid of any power a collective might yield.
- The organic nature of my own thinking about AIW seems at times too esoteric or personal and I become self-conscious about revealing capricious thoughts and obtuse connections between AIW and the world around us.
- So, the act of “blogging” (both in form and content) has felt inauthentic, mostly because I’m never sure if anyone will find value in what I’m writing.
- The net result is that I have been less willing to take risks. I’m still working out the implications, but I suspect that when we take risks, there is an electricity that infuses the interchange, sparking fresh thought; without it, the communication becomes tedious and stressful.
My personal 2013 New Year’s resolution to the Center and its readership is that I will blog more. To empower myself, I have reframed how the four guiding principles apply to us—me the blogger and you the AIW reader:
- I trust there is a collective community interested in reading thoughts on Authentic Intellectual Work;
- I trust my own organic cogitations have value to someone reading the blog, even if only one person.
- I trust the most interesting blogs are when the text is infused with original thought, grounded in a discipline that has a connection to the outside, world or sheds light on a problem in the education reform community.
- I trust that my risk-taking will pay off with more energized accounts of AIW in the world and that the effort to communicate will be respected, not scorned.
Although I will surely have some flops, it seems better to have tried and failed than to keep silent during this telling time of educational reform.
WHAT’S YOUR AIW RESOLUTION?
No, this isn’t a bad title for a B-grade movie or even the beginning of a joke. Just stick with me as I meander into Value Beyond School—for you, for me, and for all of our students.
It all started one day when Dr. Bruce King sent an email with a three-hour video attached and a request to have a blog written about it. Misunderstanding completely (he just wanted a blurb and the link posted), I wrestled with the thought of watching a video by people I didn’t know in order to write something about Value Beyond School.
After another polite inquiry by Bruce, I decided to turn down the sound on the Broncos’ game and listen/watch the video featuring Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West during one of their stops on the Poverty Tour 2.0.
So here is the blurb about the video . . . Mr. Smiley and Dr. West are traveling around the country and, via PBS and radio, are holding town meetings about poverty and the economic gap in America and it’s devastating impact on our children, our society, and our country. (They coauthored a book that was on best-seller lists—The Rich and the Rest of Us.) With an impressive array of panelists, the duo brings to our attention the need for justice, action, and equality. In the first 15 minutes, you will see a student-produced video about poverty in their city. Then, Ralph Nader gives students information during the last 20 minutes on how they can start changing politics and impact our legislators – the Value Beyond School pieces that Bruce wanted to get out to readers. And really, this is a thought-provoking video that promotes authentic opportunities for students AND adults.
Stick with me—the significance of both the title and video are coming.
Meanwhile the Broncos’ game morphed into the Ravens and Steelers, and I was still wondering about a blog. I gave in to sleep and woke up Monday morning and headed to Lenox, Iowa for the funeral of Agnes Porter, a 99-year old aunt-by- marriage. To know Agnes was to know a crusader – the petite, feisty lady was a straight-ticket Democrat, a union president, a faithful church person, an author, and a righter of wrongs. She never hesitated to try to push you to action or change your mind on an issue. Son Joe and his family lived in fear for the past few years that Mother would be evicted from the care facility because of one of her many crusades. At the time of her passing, Agnes was loudly voicing concerns about the nurses aids and their low wages and long hours – a union was needed! At 99 years of age! The energy, the passion, the need for justice – should we all have those characteristics at 70, at 50, at 30, at 15.
Now, the point of this blog. The video is an impassioned plea to do something about poverty, to find the “fire in the belly” to help others and get involved as a crusader in righting the wrongs of our country and end poverty. Yesterday, a small community celebrated the life of another crusader in Aunt Agnes, who pushed for reform in her own small world. Today, I say that we, the AIW community, are quiet crusaders as we work to reform education for our children—teacher by teacher, building by building, district by district.
When we feel defeated, like we don’t make a difference, wondering why change takes so long, remember those people who crusade their whole lives—the Smileys, the Naders, the Wests of the world, or even an Agnes next door. Continue to push for reform, continue to reimagine our educational world, and continue to work your AIW magic.
Value Beyond School and Authenticity should be stenciled on our calling cards.
Carry on, Crusaders!
We recently received this query from an AIW team.
This is a great question and gets at the heart of differentiation, grouping of students, and tracking. Tasks should score high a reasonable amount of the time regardless of kids' ability levels. Ideally, we should have similar HIGH standards and expectations for all learners, with modifications, adaptations, scaffolding, etc to help students who are struggling readers or who need other kinds of assistance. This sounds like a great, high scoring AIW task, and it should not be scored differently based on the students. Its wording, the steps to complete it, a rubric all may need tweaking for different groups and the Algebra A students would likely need help with the text (re-written, read out loud, etc) and maybe more step by step coaching to complete the task, but we'd hate to see them get dumbed-down tasks because of their current skill levels (which are not static).
A helpful resource on maintaining high expectations for all learners and what should and should not be differentiated—Tomlinson, C. A., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction & understanding by design: Connecting content and kids. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.