Why every lesson should have a guiding question.

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Curriculum, Themantics

We learn by solving problems. So why not give students problems to solve, rather than commands to follow?

The answer to this will probably seem pretty obvious, but there’s a little more to an effective guiding question than meets the eye. I like to keep my planning simple and a good guiding question is just one way I try to do less, but do it better.

What is a guiding question?

In the themantic model of curriculum design, every lesson has one guiding question that frames the lesson (you can see these in the sample pages from the new textbook, which can be found on the resources page).

Like all of the ideas in the themantic model, this is hardly revolutionary stuff. But it is evolutionary in the sense that the particular requirements of an effective guiding question can really deepen student understanding.

A guiding question in our model requires students to understand how two things are related. The questions are always phrases in a way that requires students to be able to explain a significant relationship between two things. This relates to ThemEd’s definition of knowledge as the ability to comprehend individual units of information, and understanding as being able to show how they’re related in response to a question or problem.

Here are some examples from the student’s guide:

  • How might working memory training improve attention?
  • How does the smoky room study demonstrate the effects of normative social influence?
  • How might SSRIs reduce the symptoms of PTSD?
  • How might cultural values influence aggression?

Why should every lesson have a guiding question?

  1. Every lesson should have a learning outcome. I think we learn that on the first day of teacher’s college. So why not have the outcome as a question?
  2. A learning outcome should be communicated to students. Because if a student doesn’t know the goal of a lesson, how they can work towards achieving it? Again, nothing pedagogically revolutionary here!
  3. Homework becomes easy to assign – didn’t get to answer the guiding question? Complete for H/W. (It’s also really easy to assign work for students who miss class and need to catch up).
  4. Reporting progress to is easy as you can now clearly explain to the parents of students who constantly struggle to answer the guiding question how they can help – every night get the kid to show the question and the parent checks their answer. As teachers, we can only do so much and with kids that need help others need to pitch in, including parents.
  5. Similar to point #4, communicating with tutors is really easy – they help the kids answer the guiding question. Our learning outcomes are visible for everyone!
  6. Student note-taking can be improved. You can also make workbooks that include the questions and spaces to write answers, so it makes it easy to measure progress, check homework, etc.
  7. Questions are more inviting than commands. Kids (and adults) want to solve problems, not follow orders. I think students should be invited to solve interesting questions, more than they’re asked to obey commands. This is why I prefer questions to commands (you can see further below how to change guiding questions into learning outcomes if you need to do this for school unit planning).
  8. By requiring students to show how two things are related, you’re helping them to make sure that they first comprehend the individual things. That is to say, the guiding question facilitates the acquisition of new knowledge that has been introduced in the lesson. For example, a student can’t explain the effects of SSRIs or working memory training, unless they can comprehend what these things are.
  9. Following from the previous point, now I don’t need to have a bunch of learning outcomes like “Define SSRI” or “Outline working memory training.” These are embedded in the guiding question, which streamlines my planning documentation.
  10. Similar to point 8, by giving students questions you’re encouraging them to ask more of their own questions. After implementing the themantic model, my students now ask more more questions during the ‘A’ phase of our C.H.A.C.E.R lessons. By making the learning outcome (i.e. being able to answer the question) explicit in each lesson, students slowly learn that it’s OK to ask for help. I find this is especially the case with students who take longer to comprehend new information.
  11. We hear from examiner reports (and we know from our own experience) that IB exam answers are plagued by regurgitation of details (i.e. description showing knowledge) and fundamentally lack demonstration of understanding (i.e. explanation showing how things are related). By getting students to answer guiding questions every lesson, they’re continually developing not only their thinking skills, but also their writing and communication skills, too.

Simple questions, complex answers

At this stage I’ll just point out that while the guiding question always requires understanding of how two things are related, there are often far more factors involved in the answer.

For example, in my unit on criminology, students will (hopefully) be able to answer how cultural values can influence aggression because people with values related to the culture of honor may experience spikes in testosterone levels when they feel they’re being threatened. This spike in testosterone impacts the amygdala (as shown in other research), which increases physiological arousal and could lead to an increase in negative emotion – two key ingredients in a violent reaction towards being threatened. This might explain how some cultures (e.g. in the Southern US states) have more levels of violence than other cultures.

It’s important to note here, however, that in the lesson where this guiding question came from (Chapter 2, Topic 2.5, Lesson B), the only new information was the increase in testosterone experienced by Southern white males. All the other details about testosterone, culture of honor, the amygdala, aggression, social threat, etc., have been covered in previous lessons. This is the heart of the themantic model – using recurring themes to drip-feed new information so students understand increasing complex ideas. It also means that all students have a chance to revise and rehearse all these ingredients involved in aggression regularly, which will help learning and retention as we know that rehearsal helps learning at a cognitive and a neurological level.

What if I prefer (or need for unit plans) “learning outcomes?”

Easy! Simply rephrase the question with the command term “explain” at the front:

  • Explain how working memory training might improve attention.
  • Explain how the smoky room study demonstrates the effects of normative social influence.
  • Explain how SSRIs might reduce the symptoms of PTSD.
  • Explain how cultural values might influence aggression.

So for those planning on using the student’s guide, you’ve got every learning outcome in your course already written for you, if you like. 

Once you throw the word “explain” in there it makes it easier to see how the guiding questions are preparing students to be able to apply their knowledge to address IB exam questions. If they’re asked about a biological treatment for PTSD, for example, if they can answer the guiding question they can explain how it works. If asked about how culture influences behaviour, they can explain how cultural values influence aggression.

Students under-perform in IB Psychology, I believe, because the focus is on content, as opposed to understanding. On the surface the course appears to require a lot of content, but if you understand the assessment requirements, you’ll see that actually students don’t need to know that much, as long as they understand a lot.

Understanding builds on knowledge, just like explanation goes beyond description – they’re not two separate things!

What happens if a student finds the questions too easy?

In the themantic model every lesson has three levels of learning outcomes that match our three levels of thinking:

  1. Knowing
  2. Understanding
  3. Abstracting (a.k.a critical thinking)

The guiding questions are aimed at ensuring knowledge and understanding. In order to answer this question, students must comprehend (i.e. know) the new information being introduced in the lesson.

And if students can complete the guiding question before the lessons ends (we aim to design lessons so about 1/3 of students can do this), well they move on to the “abstraction extensions” (I’ll post more about these shortly). So the second ‘C’ in a C.H.A.C.E.R lesson is the check-in, where I give formative feedback and made sure they understand the lesson’s outcome (i.e. they can answer the guiding question) and the ‘E’ is the extension.

Simply put, these extensions are designed to get students thinking in the abstract about what they’ve just understood (i.e. their own answer to the guiding question). They require them to consider questions related to the following:

  • Can this relationship apply to other contexts?
  • Are other factors influencing this relationship?
  • Can we challenge the existence of parts of the relationship?

For example, after the culture and aggression question, the abstraction extension I provide students gets them thinking about population validity – the extent to which findings from the Culture of Honor study can be applied to other contexts (populations).

Something else that happens a lot in my class now, is that the students who fly through the lesson and can answer the guiding question voluntarily help other students who struggle. Sometimes those students even ask a high-flyer for help. I also sometimes design activities that require all group members to be able to answer the question collectively, which encourages (forces?) collaboration between students with different abilities.

Critical thinking requires students to critically reflect on their own understanding. The extensions aim at developing this skill in students.

What if a student never reaches the abstraction extensions?

So what? They’re still learning. In my experience, the students who struggle to complete guiding questions are either EAL students, or students who have cognitive impairments. There’s no point getting these students to consider the critical thinking extensions, if they haven’t comprehended the new information in the lesson. If you try, you’ll get responses like, “this experiment was a lab experiment and so lacks ecological validity.”

One way to test the demands of critical thinking for yourself, is to write a sample answer to the sort of critical thinking question you’d like your students to be able to answer. As you’re writing, take note of the knowledge and understanding that you are basing your critical thinking – you’ll soon see why students should progress through the levels 1, 2 then 3.

Students operating at level 1 and 2 (knowing and understanding) are developing language and cognitive skills. And they’re still learning! To put them into an extension task before they’re read is depriving them of the opportunity to learn at their level, and this is counter-productive.

The next step in the themantic model is designing topics so the lessons within those topics all have guiding questions that are related to one-another. But that’s a whole ‘nother series of posts.