COACHING HABITS OF MIND: Pursuing Essential Questions in the Classroom

by Grant Wiggins

What is essential must be experienced as essential. Essential facts and theories are only understood as the results of one’s own work; they are not self-evident notions learned through words as “knowledge,” but the residue of effective performances–Habits of Mind.

When they are coaching students to engage in collaborative inquiry, teachers need to insure that essential habits and norms are taught and learned. The following structures, roles, and strategies can be used to improve the quality of group discussion, so that students may become increasingly self-regulating and self-disciplined about their work.

I have done this by dividing a class into segments: exploring, proposing, testing, linking, and closure.

We do this for the first five to ten minutes, in groups of three to four students. (This assumes that prior work has been assigned and done, leading to written student questions, or organized around questions posed by the teacher.)

This is to explore the “panorama” from afar, in groups–the whole terrain of the tentative issues and answers. This assumes that both the prior assignment and its purpose are clear to students.

“Where are we going? What’s the point?” To avoid these questions, pose or have students pose “essential questions” that guide inquiry and discussion. (A “seminar” assumes that the learning is to come from the members’ prior work and ideas.) Help students collaborate by giving a clear set of directions and goals for using assignments; warn them in advance how the homework will be used in class. In class, have students share and clarify their two or three written questions from the night before, in small groups. Ask each group to try to answer their questions, and bring one key question to the whole class. All these key questions are put on the board.

Propose and consider some first “paths.” Use the students’ questions about the reading or exercises, putting each small group’s question on the board. Add a “scouting” summary.

What are the landmarks? What is our tentative consensus on the key points, passages, trouble spots?


What does the author or experiment mean? This part of the process takes ten to fifteen minutes, as a whole class or in two large groups.

Begin with the key issues derived from the first “mapping,” and propose some explanations or interpretations. This work is easily divided up into “focus” groups of four to six students who wish to work on a particular topic. They work for fifteen minutes and then report their findings, with a list of relevant passages, to the class as a whole.

Use the text, experiment results, or students products frequently and carefully to test out the arguments presented by each group. Ask frequently, “What are your reasons? What is your evidence?”

When one point of view is dominant, consider an alternative. What other interpretations or points of view might be possible? What is bring unquestioningly assumed or doubted?

Reconsider initial views and hypotheses as warranted.

“BUT WHAT IF . . . ?”
Start the process again.


Spend ten minutes answering this question as a class.

Consider the implications of each theory or interpretation for other passages in the text, other parts of the experiment or product, and so forth.

IF . . . THEN . . .
Consider the implications of a view of the part for the “text” as a whole.

Consider possible links between the current interpretations and the essential questions that guide the course as a whole.

Consider the implications of this author’s point of view with regard to other authors’ views.

Consider the author’s or theorist’s view in terms of its plausibility, its supporting evidence, its practicality, today’s base of knowledge, and so forth.


For the last ten minutes of the class, summarize the main points of agreement and disagreement in the discussion.

This important skill is the most overlooked strategy in teaching, and should be first modeled by the teacher, then assigned on a rotating basis to pairs or trios of students. Stress that the summary should not be a chronological ramble (“We talked about this, then that, then this . . . “) but a highlighting of essential points. For this reason, give each summarizer a chance to reflect, review notes, and the like before beginning.

Finally, consider what steps ought to be taken next. (with older students, allow two or three minutes for note taking.)