Curriculum Opinion

Leadership Requires Asking Essential Questions

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 20, 2013 4 min read
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What is all the fuss about asking questions? Essential questions have been part of our work for years. We’ve asked teachers to use essential questions. We’ve sent them to workshops about question development. Some of us searched lesson plans for essential questions that lead the lessons our teachers teach. So why is the issue of questions resurfacing? What is it about questions that seems so important? And more importantly, why should leaders care about questions other than those asked by our teachers in our classrooms? To answer those two questions, and to determine whether they are essential, lets step back and look at our present landscape.

Change theorists often debate whether change rises from the inside of a system or from those places persistently occupying space on the fringe. Outward Bound has for decades existed on the fringe. It has provided experience based programs for children and adults and developed a reputation for challenging and life changing opportunities. Now, those Expeditionary Learning’s values and beliefs have become the centerpiece of the current school reform agenda. The ten design principles, formulated in 2003, are, a decade later, being implemented in nearly every school and classroom across the country. The Common Core Standards give us an extraordinary opportunity. They are causing teachers to revisit questions. The shift required is from asking questions such as, “What is a metaphor?” to asking questions like, “How does the author use metaphor to further readers’ understanding of (a particular) character?” Big difference. The good news is many teachers are incorporating both in their current practice.

We were trained to call these questions essential. Perhaps “essential questions” seems old, like “whole language” or “document based questions.” So let’s concentrate on what they are instead of what they are called. According to Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins “Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions, including thoughtful student questions, not just pat answers. They are provocative and generative. By tackling such questions, learners are engaged in uncovering the depth and richness of a topic that might otherwise be obscured by simply covering it” (p.3).

Or, we can look to Parker Palmer who describes honest, open questions with a set of guidelines for creating questions that are worthy of that designation. He would agree with Expeditionary Learning’s first principle and the connection between questions and that process of self-discovery. These questions are trust building and are without right or wrong answers. They make the recipient consider deeply in order to discover the answer to be offered. They are leader questions.

Leaders have also been found refining their questions in the feedback conversations associated with new evaluation processes. These questions belong, not only the classroom, but in our work with faculty, parents, students, the public at large. If our role is to create and maintain successful relationships with all of these constituents, then we must be able to lead a continuing, deepening and broadening understanding of common purpose in order to create and maintain trust. There are two ways in which this is very important.

The first is, in order to guide our communities through these choppy waters, we cannot lead with only a reactive stance. Whether questions are ones we raise, or questions raised to us, our capacity to reframe questions into meaningful ones is transformative. Certainly, there are times and questions that call for a clear and certain answer. But there are others when questions present opportunities. When asked to defend a decision we have two choices: defend it or take the time to turn it around. Refocusing from the reason for your actions to the factors you considered and the questions you asked yourself shifts the interaction and informs both parties of considerations potentially unknown or misunderstood.

The second way this is very important is how it informs instructional leadership. If we expect teachers to know how ask essential questions of their students, we must be skilled enough to ask them of our faculties as well as our communities at large. The best way to enhance the use of newly formed questioning is to model it. If we become more automatic in the use of this type of questioning, it provides a smoother transition for our teachers. So by asking these types of questions in our daily interactions with our administrators, principals, teachers, parents, support staff, students, everyone, we contribute toward an essential transition we need our schools to make.
We suggest adding to our two original questions. Let’s think about three.

  • Why is the issue of questions resurfacing?
  • Why should leaders care about their own use of questions?
  • How might our schools be different if we, as leaders, changed our everyday practice to include the intentional use of questions?

    McTighe, Jay, & Wiggins, Grant. (2013) Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD

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  • The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.