The Great Debate: Essential Questions or I Can Statements

As educators, the focus in our profession is teaching others and helping our students learn, grow, and develop as much as possible. Fortunately, teachers also have the opportunity to continually learn and grow themselves. As new research is done and trends are developed regarding the best teaching practices, teachers are constantly learning new methods and techniques to use in their classroom.

When I returned to the world of teaching after staying home with my kids for several years, Essential Questions and I Can Statements were a new component in the classrooms since the last time I had taught. I am learning that this component of teaching is incorporated in a variety of ways depending on where you teach, the expectations of your administration, and also the preference of the teacher.

As an art teacher in search of the best practices in using Essential Questions and I Can Statements, I have come across some criticism of this teaching component where teachers wish we could just allow our students to simply create and not be held down to the confines of something like this. While I understand the frustration behind those statements, I also see how EQs and I Cans hold teachers accountable in their teaching and also help to maintain a certain level of meaning and importance or relevance to what the teacher is presenting to the class.

Last year I used Essential Questions as a cornerstone for every lesson I taught. I composed a question that wrapped up the lesson into one (or maybe two) questions. I would use this question as a jumping off point at the beginning of class and then used it as a review at the end of class. Some of my Essential Questions may be something like “How do artists find inspiration in nature?”, “How can an artist describe themselves through their artwork?”, and “What are ways we see art in our community?”

This worked for me and I thought it was an effective method to incorporating Essential Questions. Then, this year my state started implementing new art standards. These standards have a strong emphasis on I Can Statements, or statements that address what it is the student will be doing or should be learning that day. “I can create an artwork using the primary colors”, “I can create an artwork in the style of Romero Britto”, and “I can use line, shape, and color to create rhythm in my artwork” are various I Can Statements to use in an art lesson.

Essential Questions cover a broader topic to create relevance and meaning to the lesson and I Can Statements remain more specific to that particular art project and what the student is actually completing that day. Because of the push with I Can Statements in our new state standards, at the start of this school year I decided to address I Can Statements during my lessons instead of using an Essential Question. In my mind, I felt like I needed to choose between EQs and I Cans and implement one of the two in my lessons.

Quickly into the school year I discovered I missed the Essential Question and wasn’t sold on using just the I Can statements during my teaching. I missed being able to link the concepts the students were learning to the bigger picture with the Essential Question. After much thought, and going back and forth, I took to social media to see what was working for other art teachers. Some said they used Essential Questions, some said they used I Can Statements, and others said they used both. At first when I heard the idea of using both it seemed like too much and too confusing for the students.

Then, after rethinking and considering how it would work into my teaching, I discovered it actually seemed perfect. I now use my Essential Question throughout an art project to connect what we are doing to something bigger and then refer to the I Can Statements that are specific for what the students are doing during that particular class what they are completing on their project that day.

For example, my kindergarten classes have been learning how to use various shapes to create an artwork of a pig. Every week during the project we discussed the Essential Question of “How are shapes used to create objects around us?” During week one we discussed the I Can Statement “I can use shapes to draw a picture of a pig.” Then, during week two, the I Can Statement was “I can follow steps to use crayons and paint correctly in my artwork”. The EQ allowed us to look around and talk about the shapes of various objects and how things are created by different shapes. Then, each week the I Can Statement was geared toward the specific concept or skill the students were focusing on that day. I have been using both EQs and I Cans for a few weeks now and so far using both components in my teaching have been really successful.

At first glance these expectations placed on our teaching can seem like a burden, but like me, when you dig a little deeper you will see they can truly aid in making your teaching more meaningful. I think I may have finally come to terms with what works best in my classroom when it comes to Essential Questions and I Can Statements. I would love to hear your thoughts on these two components of teaching? Do you feel they are a necessary part of your lessons? Do you use EQs or I Cans? And Why?