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You can create and become part of an increasingly inspirational educational environment. We will begin a process of exploring ways to create a more and more joyful atmosphere in which to teach and learn. The next series of blogs will examine ways to ignite the capable, inquisitive, natural, learners before us. We will seek paths to engage their hearts and minds, acting as sparks for their curiosity.

In an era when students have every piece of information literally at their fingertips, we can allow ourselves to relax our difficult and exhausting pursuit to ply them with as much content as we can. Instead, we can encourage acquisition of knowledge even more by focusing on our students’ learning abilities, and seek approaches that build on that. We can focus on building the habits of mind and ways of thinking that support learning, both now and in the future.

To use a time-worn analogy, we can teach our students to fish, rather than providing all the fish for them. Instead of retention of information, our goals for our students can be for them to increase their abilities in areas such as gathering data through all of their senses; questioning and posing problems; thinking and communicating with clarity and precision, and creating, imagining, and innovating. One effective approach to reaching these goals is the use of essential questions.

Essential questions are not intended to demonstrate retention of information. Rather, they are designed to lead to deeper thinking about the crux of the material being explored. They are open-ended, stimulating questions, necessitating active use of the material. They lead to evaluation and interpretation, and often inspire further exploration.

Focusing on exploring essential questions demonstrates to our students that we believe them to be capable of understanding and learning at a deep level. This kind of question can help them to personally understand the benefits of learning the subject, applying what they are learning to their lives. For example, we can ask students questions such as “What are some of the ways that we use math in our lives?”

You can guide them to respond to this question by helping them to gather data. You can first help students think about all that math can include, such as counting, measuring, comparing, and sorting. You can guide them to explore when they perform those actions, such as when paying for things (counting), determining if they are tall enough to ride a ride (measuring), choosing between two items of clothing (comparing) and cleaning their room (sorting).

You can then pose a problem related to the initial question. For example, you could ask students to imagine what it would be like if math did not exist, and we weren’t able to perform those tasks. You could ask them to show a situation where math exists and then the same situation without math. They could then share their responses in a number of ways.

Students can be encouraged to respond with clarity and precision, supporting their responses with specific examples. You could ask them to include the performance of math tasks as part of their answers. Multiple intelligences can be encouraged by offering students a variety of modalities in which express their responses to the question posed. For example, students could share their answer in the form of an equation, a story, a role-play, or a painting.

Using essential questions in this way encourages interest in and connection with the material, builds learning skills, and reinforces acquisition of knowledge. In subsequent blogs, we will explore other enjoyable and effective ways to teach and spark our learners.

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