STEP 1: Ask the Essential Question

KEY: The proper question sets the stage for learning. The ability to ask the right question at the right time is the difference between good teachers and great teachers....


Twenty years ago knowledge was power. It still is, and will always be, but I believe it is less true in 2005. Access is power, and process is power. Today, it’s not so much what I know; it’s more about having access to information resources and and the ability to use those resources within a problem-solving approach that is powerful.

I believe that successful use of the World Wide Web within an instructional setting is tied directly to a pedagogical approach that promotes inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based learning can have many definitions and can be compared directly to other forms of instruction such as problem-based learning. In a general sense, I define inquiry-based learning as a process where students formulate investigative questions, obtain factual information, and then build knowledge that ultimately reflects their answer to the original question. In this case, the factual information is obtained from Web resources. Embedded within the inquiry-based process are numerous process and thinking skills that make this type of learning a rich and meaningful experience for students. Students may engage in this process as individual learners, or in cooperative teams. Additionally, the process is pliable, permitting various permutations of the process to be used effectively with all types of learners.


Using the Web within an inquiry-based pedagogy begins with asking or framing an essential question. For our purposes, an essential question is defined as a question that requires students to make a decision or plan a course of action. Making decisions and/or planning a course of action are essential adult skills that students need to display at a high level of proficiency. Educators need to focus on such questions; many teachers rely to heavily on "What is..." questions such as "What is cancer." Asking a student to answer such in a research project is licensing the student to move information from point A to point B without concern for integrating discrete information pieces into new knowledge or fresh insights. Effectively, in this day of digital "cutting and pasting," asking a "What is.." question is a license to plagiarize.


A much better question requiring the development of an action plan regarding the cancer topic cited above might be: "What plan can I develop for reducing the chance that I will contract cancer in my lifetime?" In this scenario, a student must research the question to develop a list of strategies; the teacher then may require the student to select the top three strategies from the list and then justify why those were chosen. In this question, active knowledge construction is required.

Teachers my also ask students questions involving decision-making. Such questions as "Should Puerto Rico become the 51st state of the United States?" or "What invention of the 20th Century has had the greatest impact?" require students to engage in critical thinking and build knowledge.


SEE AN EXAMPLE in a lesson: In this MiniQuest (called CancerQuest), the essential question is: "How does a cell go from one cell to two cells? ( an example of a plan-type essential question ).


RESOURCES: Essential Questions

Basing Learning Experiences in Essential Questions | David Jakes

Asking the Essential Questions-Curriculum Development | Coalition of Essential Schools

Framing Essential Questions | Jaime McKenzie

Questioning Toolkit | Jaime McKenzie

The Art of Asking Essential Questions | The first 9 pages of the book, including the best quote ever about the power of questions | Foundation for Critical Thinking ( NOTE: I highly recommend this book)

STEP 1: Ask the Essential Question

STEP 2: Writing Foundation Questions

STEP 3: Developing a Search Strategy

STEP 4: Locating Information

STEP 5: Filter, Distill and Cross-Referencing

STEP 6: Evaluate the amount of information

STEP 7: Develop the answer to the Essential Question

STEP 8: Develop a product to represent the answer


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