Designing with Compelling Questions

posted Mar 29, 2016, 1:46 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Mar 29, 2016, 1:50 PM ]
I think the thing I like most about the C3 Framework is the idea of compelling questions. I'm a hipster as far as Essential Questions go thanks to my involvement with AVID (we were using them before they were cool) but I've always felt like they were limited. Honestly, EQs are just objectives turned into questions. That isn't always particularly engaging for students. The idea of making a compelling question that drives those EQs though certainly is interesting.

As I've redesigned all my units this year I've tried to do so with a compelling question in mind. For the Dark Ages, for example, I built it around the question: What makes a hero? All of my presentations were centered around an individual. This gave the unit a much tighter story and flow than it had ever had before. Admittedly, I didn't have my students do much with the question other than weigh those figures - that's hopefully to come next year. Still, I found it very helpful and the kids definitely were engaged in the question.

With Japan coming up after break I wanted to find a good compelling question to use. In my original plans I had "What makes a culture unique?" as I've long been bothered by my students assuming every Asian culture is the same. I think that's a fine question for driving EQs. However, as I sat down to actually do something with it I realized it really wasn't all that compelling. It is a great guiding question, that is, one that will drive the direction of my instruction on the unit, but I feared it wouldn't hit home with students strongly enough. 

So, I made it personal.

"Are you your own person?"

Could there be a better question to really challenge the mind of a 7th grader?

I've always taught Japan as a metaphor for a middle schooler. In the beginning they were unique, creative and happy to build outside the box. I talk about the early rise of Sumo, the Shinto religion and their awesome creation myth. This fits well with students in their early years playing in sand boxes, banging pots together and wearing princess outfits everywhere they go. As Japan grew up and began to interact with the world they started to emulate those they looked up to (China particularly) and gave up some of their old traditions. This, of course, is a perfect analogue to most middle school students. Look at your room one day and observe how alike they are all to one another. Same hair styles, same clothes, same musical tastes, etc. I especially love the ones that try to stand out by coloring their hair or wearing something out of the norm. When you see their friends - they all look exactly the same! What is most amazing though is that they don't see it. They, of course, think they are a unique flower who came up with all their own ideas on fashion, faith and fairness.

Ultimately Japan started to create its own cultural ideals apart from China (the samurai warrior culture chief among them) much like a middle schooler will start to forge their own identity, unique from their friends and parents as they mature. So, if I can find a way to have my students analyze Japan's history in terms of identity and uniqueness I think I will be able to help them learn some deep truths about themselves along the way. I think they will be able to see the struggle Japan faced in forging its own way while still honoring the expectations of the world around them. I hope they can transfer that to themselves.

I've come up with this opening activity to help them start to catalog and characterize their own beliefs.

I have no idea why the Personal Crest in blank when you view it via Google Drive. If you open it Google Docs or in Word you will see the prompts for each space.

My hope, as with most my of my activities, is that they won't know what they are doing until its too late. The goal is to set it up simply as a chance for them to tell me more about who they are (they've done plenty of activities like this already this year, just not this in-depth.) Then, when they are finished, they should be hooked into the rest of the unit. The question, which comes across as an easy "Of course I'm my own person!" will be flipped on its head and should open them to really want to explore the history of Japan through that lens. 

I'm excited to see where this all goes for my kids. I'll be posting my new Powerpoint Presentations for Japan as soon as they are done (within a few days) as they have been redesigned to fit this question as well.

I highly recommend looking into the compelling question piece of the C3 and asking yourself how you might apply it to your units. It gives us a great opportunity to make this normally very foreign, very abstracts concepts that we teach very personal and very real. 


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