The NJDOE has given school districts across the state a September 2017 deadline to revise and align their English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics curricula to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS).
Thankfully, the shift from the Common Core State Standards and the NJSLS are not drastic by any means. The DOE has provided crosswalks, so educators can see the revisions, omissions and additions.
With this in mind, many districts across the state will be bringing in their faculty over the summer to revise their ELA and Mathematics curricula to ensure appropriate alignment.
Included in the work, teachers will be asked to develop units of study aligned to the NJSLS. This task also directs teachers to develop essential questions that add rigor, grit and relevance for the units of study.
I have found oftentimes, when presenting workshops on curriculum and instruction, teachers are uncertain between the differences between enduring understandings, essential questions and guiding questions. Moreover, they seek clarity in the purpose of essential questions for units of study across all content areas.
- Is open-ended; it will not have a single correct finite response.
- Is intellectually engaging and sparks meaningful discussion.
- Taps into higher-order thinking based on DOK 2 and 3 such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction.
- Targets transferable ideas that crosscuts more than one discipline.
- Sparks further inquiry and thus additional debate and discussion.
- Requires evidence to support justification and not just a single answer with no evidence.
- The question is revisited throughout the unit of study time and time again. Recurring.
Questions which meet most or all the above criteria are essentially, “essential”. When students are asked to tackle these thought provoking questions, learners are engaged in the grit, rigor and depth of a topic which will lead to high levels of rich learning.
Essential questions imply three important meanings. An essential question is important and timeless. They should not be developed on the notion of learning the “right answer” but understand how responses to questions will change over time as the learner understands more, experiences more and discovers more thus constantly changing their minds.
Secondly, an essential question is foundational. Such questions point to the “big idea” of the topic/ subject. For example: How Strong is Scientific Evidence? What do good problem solvers do when they get stuck? How do effective writers hook and hold their readers?
A third connotation for the meaning of essential is how the learner personally understands, how the question takes facts and skills to a deeper level of application. Examples which reflect this are, “What models best describe a business cycle?” or “How can a diet that is healthy for one person be unhealthy for another?” and “What do good readers do to understand complex text?”
In closing, as teachers begin to revise curricula and create essential questions, keep in mind the purpose of the essential question is over-arching and leads the learner to higher levels of deep thinking.