Going into the session, folks had been asked to brainstorm what unit they would like to transform or create in the project-based framework, and maybe write a couple of essential questions that they thought would be useful.
Stuff From This Week
We looked at a few documents outlining key ideas behind Understanding By Design, including the “six facets of understanding” described below. People were asked to discuss: which of these are you already hitting in your classroom? Which are eluding you and/or your students?
Next up, we looked at a cheat sheet of sorts — “question starters based on the six facets of understanding.” You can find the full list in this document; here’s a sampling:
- Who_________? What__________? When _________? How________? Why_______?
- What is the key concept/idea in ____________________________________________?
- What might happen if _______________________________________________________?
- What are common misconceptions about _______________________________________?
- How is _______________________like ________________________(analogy/metaphor)?
- How does _____________________________________________________relate to me/us?
- So what? Why does it matter?
- How and when can we use this (knowledge/process) ____________________________?
- How is __________________________________________ applied in the larger world?
- How could we use _______________________ to overcome ________________________ (obstacle, constraint, challenge)?
- What are different points of view about _____________________________________?
- How might this look from ______________________________________’s perspective?
- What is the evidence for ____________________________________________________?
- What would it be like to walk in ____________________________________’s shoes?
- How might ___________________feel about _____________________________________?
- How might we reach an understanding about ___________________________________?
- How do I know________________________________________________________________?
- What are the limits of my knowledge about ___________________________________?
- How are my views about __________________shaped by ________________________ (experiences, assumptions, habits, prejudices, style)?
The real meat of the evening, however, was when SLA English teacher Matt Kay talked to us about his process for writing essential questions. He shared his process for the book “Kindred,” which he teaches to 9th graders. His Essential Questions for his unit are:
- What is the relationship between who we are and what society expects of us? (What does society expect of us?)
- Okay I didn’t get the other two written down… but they were good.
He tweaks his wording every year, as “after teaching for seven years, you get intimate with a novel.” His questions have also gotten longer, instead of shorter — he edits his questions to reflect the kinds of questions students themselves are asking. He also has a sort of floating Essential Question that he uses for creative prompts: “If you were this character, what would you be doing?”
None of these EQs, he noted, are skill-based. These the things they are going to be troubling with, and “never really find an answer to.” He builds questions that they can wrestle with — if not, it’s not a good essential question.
He doesn’t give them all three at once — introduces them as they appear in the book.
Q&A with Matt Kay
Do his students know the phrase “essential question?
Yes, although eventually wants to fool around with them creating their own.
What role do the questions play for his students?
As discussion starts, all of these can be prompts for class discussion. A class often starts with “what happened” in a book, but the questions can help draw the discussion deeper, and link between days. You want to make them okay with the idea that they’re reaching toward something that they’re not going to get — but they’re not feeling frustrated by that. It’s a puzzle that they never quite fix.
As for the six facets of understanding, “empathy” and “self-knowledge” are the two that you have to reach for. Asking the hard questions is the challenge — often for the teacher as much as the students.
What happens if kids go in a different direction?
Give kids power and agency — let them know they have brought up something new and interesting — it removes the barrier between teacher and student.
Essential questions are easy to apply to a classic, literature discussion. How do you use them for units based around skills and content?
Matt gave an example from his “grammar boot camp” unit — “How does someone’s language affect the way other look at them?” He shows papers from last year (with the names taken off) and asks what judgments they make about those students — are they smart? are they good students?
It’s about the “why” of the skill, and the dangers of not having it.
How do you know that the project-based inquiry model is working?
Who’s asking the question? You know it’s landing when students are asking higher-order questions on a regular basis. If you still have to ask all of the questions, they haven’t absorbed the intention of PBL and understanding by design.
I then noted that this version of “success” can get skewed — kids can ask higher-order questions all day but get nothing explicit “done” — so I asked: so how do you find balance?
Matt’s response to that: for PBL to be successful, kids take initiative on their own projects. Instead of asking “Can I,” they approach him with things they have stated. They gain a confidence to start things — even if they don’t have all of the skills in place. And they don’t always need a prompt.
Everybody went home with UBD Template instructions as well as a Blank_UbD_Planning_Template. The goal for next week is to have “Stage 1” planned out — at least a rough draft, so we can compare and refine during the next session.
Happy planning everybody!