I started to think about an Essential Question for the beginning of the school year that I may begin to use in my Global Studies classes at QHST. I quickly came up with the question: What does it mean to be civilized? After pondering this thought, (and of course searching the internet aimlessly) , I came to realize that this question could easily be applied to art and literature as well as Global Studies. Through my search I came across the article I reposted here about the process of creating an effective essential question. I now am wondering, Is my question going to encourage my students to go furthe? or is there a finite group of answers I am looking for?
I could use help from anyone who has a suggestion...thanks!
Basically I'm trying to avoid this "Ben Stein Effect"!
WEAC News -November 2000
What makes a work of art great? Why do people find the painting Guernica by
Picasso so compelling? What makes a Frank Lloyd Wright building so remarkable?
Why is Aaron Copland’s lyrical Appalachian Spring such a heralded piece
of music? What was it about Walker Evans’ photographs that renders his
images so memorable? Why do generations keep discovering magic in a novel
such as “To Kill a Mocking-bird?” How do we explain the appeal of a Mozart
opera, an Emily Dickinson poem, a Henry Moore sculpture, a Sergei Eisenstein
motion picture, a Billie Holiday recording? How do we account for what
makes some artistic works great?
Or to perhaps ask it another way, “Why should we bother
to become acquainted with works such as these?” Certainly, this is an
essential question, a question that cuts right to the core of art and
what makes some art meaningful, powerful, and enduring. And it’s a question
that would undoubtedly elicit a variety of possible answers, probably
some disagreement, and perhaps even heated passions.
Last month’s Reading Room column (October 2000) described
a method of unit planning that Wiggins and McTighe (2000) term Backward
Design. The concept behind backward design is to organize instruction
first around “big ideas,” those central and focusing ideas within a topic
that make it worthwhile to study, the gist of a unit that provides students
with important insights about their world, the essence of learning that
students retain long after their days in the classroom are over. The way
to get at big ideas, suggest Wiggins and McTighe, is through essential
Most of the questions that confront students in our curriculum are leading
questions. Leading questions direct learning toward a set answer and are
helpful in making sure that students are clear on key basic information.
But essential questions help students dig deeper into a topic. Organizing
a unit around essential questions involves the following steps:
Step 1: Consider what transcendent questions
might be embedded in a topic or unit of study. Why? or So What? are examples
of over-arching questions that help students see critical connections
or relationships within a topic area. Why exactly are we studying this?
How can this be applied in the larger world? What couldn’t we do if we
didn’t understand this? What’s the “moral of the story”? What is worth
remembering, after time has passed, about this topic, unit, novel, or
For example, why should students read the novel, “Lord
of the Flies”? Why this book and not another? What will they gain from
this experience that will make a difference to them? What are the “big
ideas” in this work? What makes this book a classic?
Questions like these help teachers focus on the “point”
of instruction. Unlike leading questions, which could help students follow
key events of the plot, spot the author’s use of symbolism, or clarify
characterization, these overarching questions tap into larger ideas that
can be accessed during a unit such as a novel study of “Lord of the Flies.”
Step 2: Next, decide on “topical” essential questions
which directly relate to a specific topic or unit of study. For example,
essential questions germane to “Lord of the Flies” might include: What
does it mean to be civilized? Are modern civilizations more civilized
than ancient ones? What is necessary to ensure civilized behavior? Do
children need to be taught to be civilized? What causes us to lose civilized
Wiggins and McTighe argue that essential questions like
those posed above have a number of critical attributes. First, they are
arguable; there is no single obvious “right” answer. Such questions ask
students to “uncover” ideas, problems, controversies, philosophical positions,
or perspectives. Second, essential questions often reach across subject
boundaries and engender a series of ensuing and related questions that
help us reach an understanding. Third, these questions often strike right
at the heart of a discipline, such as what can novels tell us, whose version
of history is being told, can we ultimately prove anything in science
and how do we know what we think we know.
Fourth, essential questions are also recursive; that
is, they naturally reoccur, often many times, during the study of a discipline.
First graders as well as college students can offer valid aesthetic judgments
about what makes a book a great book, for example.
Finally, essential questions can provide a focus for
sifting through the information and details of a unit of study, and they
especially encourage student inquiry, discussion, and research. They involve
students in personalizing their learning and developing individual insights
into a topic.
Step 3: Once you have focused a unit on essential
questions, design daily activities and assessments that include student
processing of these issues. Essential questions can guide students through
assignments and help them see the intent behind a unit of study and perceive
For example, essential questions for a history unit
on “manifest destiny” and the movement of settlers west in America could
include: Why do people move? Do people migrate for the same reasons today
that they did in the 19th century? Who has the “right” to a particular
territory? Who wins and who loses during major population shifts? Questions
such as these can help students focus on big ideas as they study the events
such as the Oregon Trail, the Mexican War, the California Gold Rush, and
the conflicts between settlers and native peoples in the Great Plains.
Activities such as position papers, debates, role playing,
and simulations can be especially effective in helping students formulate
working answers to these essential questions. Certainly leading questions
that help students establish key information are an integral part of instruction.
But students also come to realize that knowledge does not necessarily
exist for its own sake, but is used to understand important dynamics about
Much of our curriculum is geared to telling students “what.” Essential
questions help students to perceive “why.” In addition:
- Students are engaged in critical thinking as an integral part of learning.
- Students begin to expect more than factual information; they become
accustomed to examining topics and issues with more depth.
- Students are encouraged to take an inquisitive and questioning approach
to the curriculum, and to develop answers that personalize their learning.
- Learning centered around essential questions is more likely to be
remembered over time.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2000)
Understanding By Design.
Alexandra, Va: ASCD.