I have been working on Essential Questions with Christian schools for a number of years now. Asking questions is a gracious way to invite people into a conversation. Jesus used questions in many different ways, but in each it was a way to cause those being asked to move to a higher plane of reflection, engagement, and dialogue. Jesus’ questions remain with us today and still challenge us: “Who do you say that I am?” Questions show respect for the others in conversation whereas statements tend to shut down further dialogue. Questions demonstrate that the asker is still open to further learning and demonstrates an attitude of humility.
Our best essential questions are shared questions that both the teacher and the student find worth pondering. “What is the difference between needs and wants?” is a question we all should be asking ourselves frequently and at each stage of life. Both teacher and student find a question like that worth their time as opposed to questions that are leading and guiding – questions that tell the learner that I as the teacher of course know the answer and I am just waiting for you to catch up and figure it out. Sometimes I wonder why, with so many good questions out there, we spend so much of our time in the teaching profession telling students facts – the level of retention does not justify the kinds of time choices we make when we could have kids pondering things that are more essential and more fruitful for deep discussion of life issues.
When teachers are in the process of creating and identifying Essential Questions I am sometimes asked if there are “Christian” essential questions and non-Christian essential questions. Let’s start by acknowledging God’s authorship, sovereignty and his truth that is evident in all things whether it is acknowledged or not. All creation speaks to God’s design, beauty, and truth. Truly, the learning journey reveals God’s truth whether the teacher acknowledges or points to God or not in the process. In a Christian school a teacher has the freedom to point to God’s truth directly and to encourage students to seek to apply a Biblical perspective. In our question above of wants and needs, I can go up to a certain point in a public school and encourage living a stewardly life on the basis of being a good human being and sharing the planet, but I cannot root that in a spiritual belief system. In a Christian school I can encourage students to discover what the Bible says about wants and needs and to help them consider how the choices I make reflect good stewardship, the kind of compassion Jesus modeled, or how to think prophetically about societal issues in the light of Micah 6:8.
Let me give a few more examples. I recently purchased an excellent resource called The Essential Questions Handbook, published by Scholastic. The book is laid out by Big Ideas in the four core areas of ELA, math, science, and social studies and covers grades 4-8. So in social studies, the first big idea is Community. One of the Essential Understandings caught my eye: “Within a community, we encounter and should respect alternative viewpoints and values.” In both public and Christian schools, we can encourage kids to demonstrate respect and seek to understand alternative viewpoints. In a Christian school we should also be encouraging kids to be gracious because they are interacting with fellow image-bearers, and equipping them with some wisdom as to how and when best to share the truth claims of the Gospel with others in their community. In Math the Big Idea of patterns results in an Essential Understanding of “Order exists in the universe.” In Christian schools we go beyond and ask who is responsible for this order, and what does this pattern reveal to us about God’s character. In Science the Big Idea of Endangered Species may result in an Essential Understanding of “Human activities can have positive and negative effects on the environment” leading us to wonder with students how to value various human activities. How as Christians do we determine whether human need or species survival are the final determining factor? What are the boundaries that need discussion around humans being the crown of creation and having dominion over creation versus stewardship and creation care?
It seems to me that there are many fruitful Essential Understanding and Essential Questions out there that reveal God’s truth. What is different is how a Christian teacher views that concept/question, whether they lead students to understand God’s truth in deeper ways, and ultimately help them to see God’s wonder, wisdom, and sense their own personal call of work in God’s world.
This post originally appeared on the Nurturing Faith blog, November 25, 2013.
Dan Beerens is an educational consultant, author, international speaker, and educational leader. Before starting Dan Beerens Consulting in May 2010, he served as Vice President of Learning Services and Director of Instructional Improvement at Christian Schools International. Prior to that, he was the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Holland Christian Schools. Dan has also worked as teacher and principal in urban and suburban public and Christian schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. He serves as a Senior Fellow at CACE (Center for the Advancement of Christian Education), represents Curriculum Trak sales and professional development and serves as co-chair of the annual Christian Deeper Learning conference. He blogs regularly for CACE and is the author of Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning (Corwin Press) and co-editor of the recent book MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education (ACSI).