Magnify Meaning

The first competency, Magnify Meaning, refers to an educator’s ability to help students understand why what they are learning is important.

Effectively communicating “the why”, while also guiding students to find their own sense of purpose, is a foundational skill upon which the other competencies are built. Providing “multiple means of engagement” through helping students find their “why” is also one of the pillars of Universal Design for Learning.

Designing lessons with essential questions is one of the most effective ways to keep “the why” front and center. In general, to qualify as an essential question, the question needs to be:

  • Open-ended
  • Thought-provoking/Interesting
  • Timeless/not bound to your specific class
  • Important

Teaching with essential questions can feel intimidating, but doing so doesn’t need to require a wholesale curriculum revamp. To the contrary, incorporating a bigger picture “why” into your lessons is something you can start doing next week.

Here’s how:

Step 1: Imagine a student has just asked you, “Why do I need to learn this?”

Come up with list of 3-5 reasons why what you teach is important. Be as specific as possible, and dig deeper than generic answers like “preparing students for their futures.”

For example, if you teach math, you might say:

“It’s important for students to learn math because math helps people understand real world phenomena.”

Step 2: Rephrase the essence of why what you teach is important in the form of 3-5 overarching essential questions. “Overarching” just means that it’s a question that describes the bigger picture why. Think your entire school year, not just the lesson you are teaching next week.

Future Focused Learning has put together a list of 100 essential questions in all subjects if you need some inspiration.

For example, an overarching question related to my example from Step 1 might be: “How does math help us understand the world around us?”

Step 3: Write a topical essential question based on a unit or upcoming lesson.

Look at your next unit or lesson and determine how the material relates to one of the overarching essential questions you just wrote.

For example, if I were planning a square roots unit and needed to relate it to my overarching question, I could write a topical essential question like,

“How do square roots help us better understand the world around us?”

Note: if your upcoming lesson doesn’t relate the bigger picture “why”, you might want to consider ditching that lesson!

Step 4: Determine an authentic way for students to engage with the substance of the essential question.

Essential questions alone will only take your students so far. In order to truly Magnify Meaning, students will need to grapple with those questions by applying what they are learning in an authentic context.

For example, to grapple with how square roots help students understand the world around them, they might create a design of their future dorm room using square roots.

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