It is commonly thought that our little guys can't handle essential questions. They are too young. They are too immature. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Since taking a course in Understanding by Design I have been using essential questions in my teaching, and in my teaching of very young students. While it's true that it takes time, practice and a bit of comfort in answering open-ended questions, it really can be done. Here is a little on how I have used essential questions in my teaching of 6-year-olds:
Every morning I have a morning message (just as many teachers of young students do) where I introduce what we will explore for the week/day (this week we are exploring families). Then I embed an essential question into the morning message in which students first think about the question, then turn and talk to their neighbor about their thoughts. Then we share out (ok, it's just your typical think-pair-share situation at hand). In the beginning of the year when we first start out thinking about questions and answering them with a partner, it really is tough. Kids do not automatically know how to converse with one another in a collaborative manner. Nor do they understand that there might be multiple answers to one question. This comes with time, and with planning.
To battle the first part, collaborative conversations, it's important to actually teach students those skills. They won't automatically know it or display it. Using posters to show what is expected during a conversation is helpful when you initially teach the skill of conversing (eye to eye, one student listens while the other speaks, then the partners switch, etc.). This alone, however, doesn't do much in teaching the skill of a collaborative conversation. One must then extend the teaching into how to respond (using sentence starters is helpful, teaching different questions they could ask, etc.), and finally how a conversation goes back and forth and built up (we practice by using math cubes; each student adds a different colored cube to their "conversation". This can be done in small groups or partnerships).
Finally, the idea of multiple answers to a question is not obvious to young students. When you begin asking essential questions, initially they think you are looking for one right answer. However, it is up to us, the teacher, to really value the different perspectives and cultivate the ones that really drive the conversation closer to the big idea. Soon the students begin to see that their own unique perspectives are valued and worthwhile, and they begin to feel more comfortable with this sort of questioning, and when this happens their thinking deepens and beautiful things happen.
Do you use essential questions in your own teaching? I would love to hear all about it!!