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Essential Questions

From Understanding by Design, Wiggins & McTighe

While standards may direct your curriculum and focus your learning goals, how you teach to those standards-creative teaching- is still up to you. (Heacock, p. 53) having reviewed your standards, content statements, benchmarks, etc., it is time to look critically at what you want to teach. Before planning instruction you must first identify the essential principles and concepts stated in your standards. Formulating essential questions will help you and the students focus on the learning that is important for students to know, understand and be able to do. Essential questions go beyond factual information to uncover big ideas and significant learning. They identify overarching concepts or principles and reflect curriculum goals and/or standards. Essential questions reflect the key understandings, critical content, and big ideas that you want students to know, understand, and be able to do after they have completed your lessons/activities.

Characteristics of Essential Questions


1. Have no simple right answer; they are meant to be argued. Essential Questions yield inquiry and argument - a variety of plausible responses. They are doorways into focused lively inquiry and research. They should uncover rather than cover a subjects controversies, puzzles, and perspectives. 2. Are designed to provoke student inquiry while focusing learning and final performance. Essential Questions work best when they are designed to be provocative to students. By their nature, they are engaging. They may involve the counterintuitive, the visceral, the whimsical, the controversial, and/or the provocative. 3. Often address the conceptual or philosophic foundations of a discipline. Essential Questions reflect the most historically important issues, problems, critical content, and debates in a field of study. 4. Raise other important questions. Essential Questions are naturally generative. They lead to other important questions and often across subject boundaries. They are at the heart of Socratic Seminars. 5. Naturally and appropriately recur. Essential Questions are asked and asked again from year to year within a field of study. They are a strand or thread that runs through a content area. 6. Stimulate vital ongoing rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons. Essential Questions challenge unexamined assumptions, simplification of previous learning, and arguments that we may take for granted. They force us to ask deep questions about the nature, origin, and extent of our understanding.

Formulating Essential Questions for your teaching will help you: Identify the concepts or ideas that are the most important (critical content) for students to know and understand, or be able to do. Focus your instructional planning. Identify recurring themes that can unify a subject or curriculum across grade levels. Writing Essential Questions To formulate Essential Questions for your curriculum, ask yourself, according to your standards: What are the most important concepts/principles for my course? What is essential for my students to know, understand, and be able to do? What are the recurring ideas, concepts, and/or themes? Tips for writing Essential Questions Limit the number of Essential Questions that you plan per class dayone or two a lesson will keep everyone focused, but not be overwhelming. Identify the key concepts, vocabulary, principles, etc. that correspond with your standards and those that will be addressed through standardized testing. Make certain that your Essential Questions reflect the standards, etc. Formulate your Essential Questions in terminology that your students will easily understand. Be certain that each Essential Question focuses on a different content element. Reminder: What we want students to know or understand has to do with concepts/knowledge, while what we want them to be able to do has to do with skills.

Sample Essential Questions


1. What characterizes great literature? 2. Why write? 3. What is a number? 4. What ways of think are used in mathematics? 5. What are essential tools for mathematics? 6. How are science and common sense related? 7. How do you study the unobservable? 8. Is it true that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it? 9. What causes change? What remains the same? 10. Should the majority always rule? 11. What is power; what form does it take? 12. Where can we find art? 13. How does art reflect the time and society in which it was produced?

14. Is art more important than utility?


15. Who is a winner?

16. Is pain necessary for progress in athletics?


17. How does language shape culture? 18. What do I do when my ideas are more complex than my ability to communicate them?