Exploring Essential Questions with Digital Objects

[In this article from the Smithsonian you’ll discover how to tap into digital objects or collections to address Essential Questions.  The Smithsonian sent a team to the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference to share their findings, since the Heinz History Center was one of the prime sites test out the new set of resources based on the history of innovation in Pittsburgh. I had a chance to present with Anne Sekula from the Remake Learning Council in Pittsburgh at the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference on what we are calling an ISTE Playbook. I see this type of focus as a perfect fit into the new ISTE Standards for Students. Students need to learn to work and select appropriate technology for their projects. Students need to curate, not just collect resources. These are part of the ISTE Standards. ]

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4

By: Tess Porter, Educational Technician, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

Trying to brainstorm your next Learning Lab collection, but not sure where to start? With a particular topic in mind, creating a large collection of objects and grounding them in a few guiding questions can be a great way to create a simple, investigative, multi-disciplinary, evidence-based, discussion-sparking collection for your students.

This method is flexible, can be used with a wide variety of topics, and works best in a collection containing 20–50 objects. In this post, I’ll describe some basic guidelines for creating a collection using this method, as well as examples of collections that I and other educators have built to inspire your own.

In this method, collection resources serve as sources of evidence for students to use in building a response to the essential question. This method is flexible, and there is no one right way to build a collection using it. However, there are a few guidelines that will help:

  • Choose the right questions to guide your students’ inquiry. There are two types of questions you’ll use:

Essential questions are the focus of the activity. They involve enduring issues, concerns, or broad disciplinary themes. Students must construct arguments based on multiple sources of evidence—the objects in your collection—to answer them. These questions are often best approached through multiple disciplines.

Supporting questions
help guide your students’ inquiry into the essential question. These questions ask students to investigate and analyze the significance of the collection objects both individually and as a group. Answering these questions will leave students with a new knowledge base from which to answer the essential question.

(For further information, see the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s (ASCD) guide What Makes a Question Essential? and page 24 of the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards.)

Most importantly, without these guiding questions, a collection could easily become the equivalent of a slideshow. These questions engage students in the topics, issues, and objects of your collection. Below are some examples of what these questions might look like and how they work together in an activity.

  • Be selective about which objects you include. Analyzing each object should add something new to your students’ inquiry into the essential question. Curate, don’t just aggregate; while the effective range of collection objects you can use in this activity is 20–50 objects, less is often more. Objects can be many things: portraits, artifacts, sculptures, letters, just to name a few! It all depends on the topic. Sometimes, videos, websites, and articles, are also worth including as an “object” for analysis.
  • Create small groups to address the activity. Discussing answers to questions and listening to peer perspectives and experiences leads to a deeper understanding of the topic and essential question at hand.

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