My favorite pedagogical tool is the essential question. Briefly, these attempt to focus student attention on the broader implications and deeper meanings behind content. I had been using them in my own quaint way before reading Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe, and that reading both confirmed my intuition and pushed my use of this strategy to a higher level.
According to Wiggins and McTighe, essential questions aim to
stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions — including thoughtful student questions — not just pat answers. They are broad, full of transfer possibilities. The exploration of such questions enables us to uncover the real riches of a topic otherwise obscured by glib pronouncements in texts or routine teacher-talk. (106)
The authors suggest that “deep and transferable understandings depend upon framing work around such questions” and that “uncoverage is a priority, not a frill or an option if time is left over after learning other ‘stuff’” (106). I train teachers to teach, and I have found that most in-service teachers want tips and tricks, and fun ways to solve common problems in the classroom. However, my courses don’t deal in tips and tricks, so many teacher-trainees react somewhat negatively to my deeper inquiries. Essential questions help me effectively navigate this impasse.