The Essential Question: Formulating a North Star to Guide Your Technology Integration Plan

Essential Question Graphic 1

For thousands of years, explorers from every continent set sailed on journeys of exploration and adventure. Each of these journeys had one thing in common. There was some type of question in need of being answered. It might have been “Is there land over there?” or “What happens if we sail to the west instead of to the east?” Either way, these quests were first planned and designed to answer a single question, otherwise known as an “Essential Question.”

In this post, you will learn how to work with your school district and your instructional coaches' leadership team to formulate an “essential question” that will help guide you through the EdTech Integration Plan process. Once identified, this “essential question” will be used to propel all other planning and action items in a school's journey to raise student achievement through the implementation of digital tools and an instructional technology framework.

Why is an EdTech Essential Question Important?

If every journey begins with a single step, and, if every quest is designed to answer one single question, the process of creating a roadmap and an EdTech Integration Plan must begin by asking one question.

  • But which question needs to be asked?
  • How should this question be chosen?
  • Why is it important that this question be the right one?

Before we go any further, let us look back at the process we have gone through so far and remember why we are creating our EdTech Integration Plan. To begin the planning of an EdTech Integration Plan, a school district must first create and agree on a set of goals and values for itself called a Strategic Plan. The Strategic Plan shares with school and local community a vision for what it wants to be over a given amount of time (usually 3-5 years). This can be looked at as the “what statement.”

The EdTech Integration Plan is the “how” in your school district. It is, in extremely broad terms, the vehicle from which we get from “Point A” to “Point B.” Without it, there is no way to reach the goals of your Strategic Plan.

What is an EdTech Essential Question?

Throughout the creation process of an EdTech Integration Plan, a district must complete a 12-step process that asks them to complete certain tasks. In the first few steps, the focus is mostly on preparing and planning. This is followed by several action items and finally the creation and presentation of several recommendations and a final report.

  1. Create a District Snapshot
  2. Define Your Endgame
  3. Formulate an Essential Question
  4. Create a Staff Needs Assessment
  5. Identify Staff Member Needs Based on Title and Position
  6. Build a Professional Learning Roadmap
  7. Create an EdTech Menu
  8. Develop Standards-Based Lesson Plans
  9. Develop Recommendations
  10. Share Your Plan with Administrators
  11. Create and Approve your Final EdTech Integration Plan

The most important of these steps is the formation of your Essential Question. Once it is formulated, it serves as the North Star for the entire project and should be always in the front of a districts mind when doing any type of planning by any type of staff member from central office administration to classroom teachers and support staff.

Ultimately, your Essential Question should be:

  • Aligned with district goals and initiatives
  • Based on language found in the Strategic Plan
  • Focused on student achievement (not curriculum or technology)
  • A vision for utopia
  • Easily understood by all community members
  • Achievable

What does an Essential Question Look Like When Complete?

The Essential Question 2

When completed, the final Essential Question should be a single question from which all your future work will hopefully answer.

In the example above the essential question is:

How can we create innovative and engaging learning environments that focus on authentic student activities and achievement?

Please notice that the essential question is not “how do we use more technology in the classroom” or “how do we get more coaches in front of teachers?”

In breaking down the example above, this question is sharing that the district is trying to figure out how to first create “innovative and engaging learning environments.”  This is a clear reference to what the district wants to see in its physical classrooms. Yet, at the same time does not use the word classroom. This gives the perception that a learning environment might be a library, an outdoor setting, a physical education space, or even an auditorium stage.

Next, the example Essential Question gives a vision for what it wants to see happen inside of those “innovative and engaging learning environments” when it says “focuses on authentic student activities and achievement.”  This phrase specifically does not mention technology, rather, it mentions that the district wishes to see real-world experiences for students being offered by staff members that will engage the students in the learning process.

Both phrases untimely come together to support and raise student achievement.

How is an Essential Question Created?

The process of creating a formal Essential Question is broken down into three distinct parts. Each of these parts is designed to help ground the school district both in its past, its present, and its future.

Step 1: Review the District Strategic Plan

If the Essential Question is an answer to the directions provided in the Strategic Plan, it is important to start the journey by reviewing the plan and asking it and its creators some fundamental questions.

  • What were the goals and visions of the plan?
  • What were some of the challenges in creating the plan?
  • Where were the needs and areas of focus in the district when creating the plan?

Step 2: Brainstorm Action Words and Key Phrases

After taking the time to review the document and breaking it down into its essential pieces and individual goals, the next step is to brainstorm.

Much like how you would extract key terms and phrases from a job posting to include in your resume as buzz words, the brainstorming phase should begin by discussing your Strategic Plan to pull out any key terms or phrases that the district deems to be important.

Step 3: Ask Yourself These Three Questions

In working with several school districts over the last 10 years on this process, the first steps in creating an Essential Question usually begin by coming together to answer these two questions:

  • What are your District Goals and Initiatives?
  • What do you want Technology Integration to look like in the classroom?

Activity Suggestion: Time to Think-Pair-Share

One uncomplicated way of completing the steps above is through a series of what I often call “brain dumps.”  This is a simple exercise where you read the Strategic Plan, The Mission Statement, and Vision Statement and write down important terms and phrases on a Post-it Note to be stuck on a wall or whiteboard.

Pretty soon, you will see a pattern form on the wall as multiple participants begin to share and post the same or similar words. The words that get posted the most often are the ones that the district holds dear to its values and should be included in the creation of the Essential Question.

Who should make up the Essential Question Committee?

As with the previous steps in this process, the Essential Question should be one that is created by a cross-section in the district. Because it will be the guiding statement that will lead to many months of work, it is important that all levels of the school district know and understand what it is, why it was created, and what purpose it is serving.

No matter how big or small your committee is in choosing your Essential Question, the one person who should have a vote in its definitive version and who should champion this project is your Superintendent. The Superintendent, having recently completed the Strategic Plan will be a vital resource in formulating the Essential Question.

Can it be changed once created?

Where it is completely possible to adjust your Essential Question midway through the process of creating your EdTech Integration Plan, it is important that your Essential Question stay grounded as much as possible. This is simply because it is grounded so much in the Strategic Plan (which will not change).

Who needs to approve it?

Once your committee has taken the steps of analyzing your Strategic Plan and created the Essential Question, it should be agreed upon by the district senior leadership team. This is not meaning that it should be something discussed at a Board of Education meeting, but it should be a table topic that the Superintendent is involved in. This one question and guiding statement will be the beacon that starts a long quest that will take numerous resources involving both time and money from all parts of the district. For this reason, it is important to get everyone on board. It is equally important for the Superintendent to champion this quest.

How does the Essential Question guide the process of creating an EdTech integration plan?

During the process of creating an EdTech Integration Plan, a district must take many steps forward using a variety of tools, methods, and resources so that they can meet the goals created in the Strategic Plan.

In the next phase of the EdTech Integration Plan, we will learn how to create a Staff Needs Assessment.

About the author, Jeffrey Bradbury

Jeff Bradbury, creator of TeacherCast, and father of the famous @EduTriplets Thanks for checking out TeacherCast today. Please take a moment to find me on all of my Social Media channels!