Essential Questions


I have been thinking a lot about questions lately and Jim Laney’s recent post brought some of my thinking to the forefront.

Essential Questions are the corner stone, in my opinion, to a good inquiry-based classroom. In thinking about this, I went back to one of my favorite books Understanding by Design (I lived by this book when I was in the classroom).

I love this quote about Essential Questions from the book:

The most vital discipline-bound questions open up thinking and possibilities for everyone — novices and experts alike.  They signal that inquiry and open-mindedness are central to expertise, that we must always be learners…  [Essential questions] are those that encourage, hint at, even demand transfer beyond the particular topic in which we first encounter them.  They should therefore recur over the years to promote conceptual connections and curriculum coherence. (108)

Creating good Essential Questions is difficult but so rewarding when you get the right one. In the age of Google where knowlege is so quickly accessible, I think educators could use Google to see just how good their Essential Question is.

Am I asking a question that Google can answer?

Some rights reserved by Tintin44 – Sylvain Masson

If the answer is yes…then maybe the question doesn’t need to be asked or maybe it needs to be expanded to ask the students to do more than simply answer the question.

The idea that Wiggins and McTighe propose above is one I used while teaching 6th grade social studies in Saudi Arabia. Working with my mentor (every teacher should have one) we sat down and came up with an Overarching Essential Question that would drive the whole year’s curriculum. The question was rather simple:

What makes a civilization great?

The curriculum had us studying, what it considered to be, all the great ancient civilizations, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, etc. As we went through the year, we kept coming back to this essential theme. There were essential questions in each unit that tied back to our overarching essential question. The final test for each unit was simple.

Why do you think this civilzation is considered great?

Sure I could have asked them about dates, leaders, ect. But that’s not what matters, even today after teaching the course, I couldn’t answer those simple memorization questions. Instead, I asked one question repeated time and time again as we studied these civilzations. We had other unit specific essential questions that lasted the length of the unit of study. In most cases that essential question had students applying what they were learning from these great civilizations and transfering that knowledge into understanding their own culture, country and political make up (most of my students were Indian, Pakistani and Filipino).

When it came to the final at that end of the year…the question was simple:

What makes a civilization great? Do you consider your own civilization to be a great one? Why or Why Not?

So using my own question I went to Google to see if it would pass the Google test. The results are interesting , if you change “great” to “successful” as Google suggests I can download an essay ready to go. But looking at the resources avalible for a student, there are a lot of opinion sites but not a lot of factual information on what makes a civilization great. Could what makes a civilization successful be different than what makes it great? I think so….and that’s what I would be looking for in the answer as well as the second part of the question, applying what they have learned to their own culture/civilization and seeing if it fits their own definition of great.

To be fair, I taught this unit in 2002-2003. Google wasn’t known by many, connectivity in the country was slow at best, and not many of my students had a computer at home….how far we have come. Yet, I think in the long run, my questions would have passed the Google Test. They asked students to do more than just learn something. They asked them to apply it, to make sense of it, to have an opinion about it. I remember walking around the room with The Thinking Stick (yes…it is a real baseball bat that I carried around) in hand having great debates in class, having deep conversations about how this applied to our own countries and cultures, and coming to better understand each other as individuals and as cultures co-exisiting in Saudi Arabia.

Google test your essential question and see how it holds up.