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To understand Essential Questioning, we need to start with a clear sense of the purpose of the Engage phase. The purpose of the Engage phase is to move from a Big Idea to an actionable Challenge. So, in the Engage phase, the questioning process is focused primarily on personal and team interests and needs.

The process of getting from a Big Idea to a Challenge is straightforward. Ask personal and contextual questions to localize and actualize the Big Idea. This essential questioning process should not require a lot of questions.

Essential Questioning

Mar 22, 2023

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What is the role of the essential question in the Engage phase of Challenge Based Learning (CBL)? 

The fact that questions appear throughout all phases of the Challenge Based Learning framework is a testament to how important we believe in the skills of asking and effectively answering questions. The role of questions changes through and within the phases of the Challenge. Here we will focus on the role of the Essential Questioning and the Essential Question in the Engage phase.

To understand Essential Questioning, we need to start with a clear sense of the purpose of the Engage phase. The purpose of the Engage phase is to move from a Big Idea to an actionable Challenge. So, in the Engage phase, the questioning process is focused primarily on personal and team interests and needs. 

Engage aims to take something large, universal, abstract, multi-dimensional, confusing, etc. and make it accessible and actionable in a specific context. We do not need to know everything about the Big Idea. We only need to figure out why we should care and where it fits into our context. If we can contextualize our learning, we will succeed. One of the essential findings from the initial research (ACOT2) that led to the CBL framework was in traditional schooling; most participants had no idea why they were learning what they were learning when they were learning it and what it had to do with everything else they were learning.

Engage aims to help learners understand the “why” of learning from the beginning. The hypothesis is that if I have a reason to learn and by learning, I will move forward, there is a greater chance that I will actively participate, connect ideas, and retain knowledge and skills. Toss in some emotion, healthy stress, collaboration, and the experience will stick with us for good. Of course, this point can be argued and needs some science behind it (a future post). Still, from our experiences as students and teachers, we decided that helping learners make connections and ownership from the beginning is critical. 

The process of getting from a Big Idea to a Challenge is straightforward. Ask personal and contextual questions to localize and actualize the Big Idea. This essential questioning process should not require a lot of questions. The “lots of questions” are needed during the Investigation phase. For now, we need the questions that help us personally or collaboratively to develop a meaningful and actionable Challenge to move us forward.

Where we enter into the process will determine our level of engagement. If we identify the Big Idea, there is ownership from the start – after all, it was our choice. With buy-in at the Big Idea, the Essential Questioning should be straightforward. We must find a question and Challenge that adds context, fosters action and creates learning opportunities. The Action component is critical as it separates the process from other approaches where the question is the star. 

For Example

I choose health as my Big Idea because this is the primary factor determining my quality of life as I age. So now I need to think about the questions that mean the most to me about health (my essential questions). In my case, I come up with these:

  • How can I continue to eat and drink what I like while remaining healthy?
  • What components of health are critical as we age?
  • What is in my power to control? 
  • How can I continue to be physically active as long as possible to do the things I love (bike, ski, kayak, explore)?

And I land on one key (for me) Essential Question:

  •  How can I continue to be physically active for as long as possible?

Notice that I am not delving into what is healthy, exercise, physically active, nutrition, etc. There will be time for that in the Investigation. I also found a question that inherently includes some of the other questions I asked and does not limit my thinking. 

Now I want to focus enough to find a meaningful, motivating and actionable Challenge. And as with many thoughtful Guiding Questions, I can make the question into a statement:

  • Remain physically active for as long as possible!

While still broad, this Challenge does narrow from health, which could include politics, policy, injustice, environment, business, healthcare, etc. it focuses on something health related that I care about and still wide enough to be refined as I learn more. Most importantly, it does not limit my thinking too much or point to a specific example. There is a lot of room to learn with this Challenge. 

But what if a group is responsible for the Engage phase? 

There is no question that the Engage process is more complicated when working in groups, but that makes Essential Questioning even more critical. Ideally, groups working on a Challenge gravitate around a common Big Idea. But even with a shared Big Idea, there will be some work getting to an agreed-upon Challenge, and this is where a lot of learning can take place. A group moving from the Big Idea to the Challenge presents an excellent opportunity for understanding and learning how to work as a group. We can find common ground by discussing personal perspectives, identifying questions, and navigating different opinions during the Essential Questioning. This work in defining the Challenge will pay dividends as we progress by assuring that we have a common vocabulary or understanding of where we are similar and differ. The closer we begin together, the better chance we finish together. 

Additional thoughts

1. The formation of groups can happen after the Challenge statement. For example, we can all work together until we identify Challenges and divide into groups. Or we can work together until we identify solutions and then split into workgroups to develop and implement them. The objectives of the Challenge should dictate the timing for moving into groups.

2. Engagement does not always happen with the Big Idea and Challenge. A goal of CBL is to build a desire for learning by finding a Big Idea and Challenge that resonates with the learner in a group setting, which is not always possible. If group members do not connect with the topic of the Challenge, we need to encourage them to find motivation in other ways. Examples include – learning new skills, being creative, and working with colleagues. In reality, we don’t always get to work on what we want to and need to find ways to remain motivated and engaged.  

Different Approaches to Engage

Suppose the Big Idea is provided (which is often the case in formal learning environments where a specific scope and sequence is in place). In that case, We may need to work harder in the essential Questioning to find a contextual and motivating challenge. But if the Big Idea is “big” enough, We should be able to get there. In the initial white paper examples, we used “water” as an exemplar Big Idea because it is part of everyone’s world, but in different ways. No matter my location, I need water, and there are important things to learn and actions to be taken. And learning about water can include chemistry, physics, engineering, history, politics, literature, etc.

Suppose the entire Engage phase (Big Idea, Essential Question, and Challenge) is provided. In that case, time must be provided at the beginning of the Investigate phase for contextualizing and connecting. We need to explore the Challenge to find where we can connect and find something interesting. This knowledge should lead to a refined challenge connected to our interests and needs. The later I am brought into the process, the more need to create time and opportunities to engage.