Understanding by Design: the Role of Essential Questions. Reflecting on shared learning with Jay McTighe

This weekend we had the great fortune of a 3 hour workshop for our school leaders with Jay McTighe.  These opportunities always seem to have double the benefit since we not only get to develop our understanding with the help of a guest speaker, but also to have focused conversations with each other on specific areas of practice.  McTighe’s area of expertise, Understanding by Design, is a great area of discovery and thought for us as a IB Continuum School.

A model of learning presented by Jay McTighe

We began with a thoughtful discussion of the roles of acquisition (knowledge or skills), meaning making and transfer of learning.  As we listened to McTighe’s descriptions of each there was a lot of agreement in the room as well as consensus both that all 3 play an important role and that transfer is the area we find most difficult to develop and support.

Fig 1. Transfer model

© Jay McTighe 2018

One of the central focuses of our session together was the role and design of Essential Questions.  Now certainly the idea of Essential Questions is not new, we were all starting with a good base of knowledge – but McTighe posed some thought provoking ideas and questions which in turn allowed us to have some meaningful discussions and reflections on our own practice.

One of McTighe’s thinking points was the idea of using Essential Questions vertically, crossing grades to give depth, purpose and a sense of connectivity to learning.  I’m not entirely sure where I stand on this right now. On the one hand I like the idea of bigger learning goals for students and sense of common purpose and connection in our learning.  However, in practice I have some reservations I need to work through first. Primarily, I worry that these overarching questions become a distraction from working towards mastery for some students.  We’d have to explore in much more depth how we connect these back to rigorous learning and authentic assessment before I’d be comfortable starting to work on what those questions should be with my colleagues. Connected to this I’m also concerned that it would risk adding another layer of goals to work towards.  We’re an IB PYP school and also use Common Core. It’s taken time, effort and blood, sweat and tears from a lot of people, but I feel like we’re in a place where this works for students, teachers and families as a way to deliver learning experiences which are deep, inquiry driven, concept based, and give students and teachers agency, whilst also being rigorous and data supported (critically not data led, but supported). I’m not sure at this point that another goal to work towards would benefit our learners, or our teachers.

This did however prompt a great discussion about the IB PYP Transdisciplinary Themes.  These serve the same purpose as the overarching questions McTighe described. They given a vertical focus to, and reason for, learning.  But I wonder how much our students recognise this? In the past we’ve worked to make the same unit different across grades in the name of avoiding repetition – but what if we planned Who We Are, for instance, vertically with intentional cross over? How does what Grade 1 learn build into Grade 2’s focus?

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Another great point of discussion centered on our current use of the Lines of Inquiry and Teacher Questions.  Why are they only Teacher Questions? Why aren’t they Essential Questions for students and teachers to consider as they build their understanding of the Central Idea? They’re already concept based, they are perfectly placed to be revamped and given a new role.  As such McTighe shared some excellent resources (I believe you can view/purchase them through his website) on designing Essential Questions. I really believe this is an area where we can make a meaningful and impactful change which will support our students.

Fig 2. Type of Essential Question

© Jay McTighe 2018

As I begin to think about our Programme of Inquiry Review process, this gives me some exciting prospects to consider:

  • How can we leverage the Transdisciplinary Themes to help students make deep and meaningful understandings across grades?
  • Can we design Essential Questions which work towards our Central Idea using the Key Concepts?

I’m excited to see what my colleagues come up with when we undertake this process together!

A huge thank you to our school, AIS Kuwait, for continuously striving to provide us opportunities such as these (even on weekends which none of us grumbled about at all… well, maybe just a little at the start!).  And of course thank you to Jay McTighe – in our 3 hour session he proved to be a very engaging presenter and gave us plenty to think about!

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