Constructing Curriculum with Essential Questions- Updated

Inquiry is at the heart of “doing social studies.” The Pedagogy Companion to the Educating for Democracy Roadmap explains,

In the American tradition, inquiry-based learning goes back at least to John Dewey, who posited that students should be actively learning about how to think and ask questions, not just memorizing rote facts. A meta-analysis examining the impact of inquiry-based learning across disciplines, outcomes, and assessment methods indicates that it can be significantly more effective than lecture-style teaching. The quality of instruction and the amount of guidance given to the students drive the impact. (p11)

The Illinois Social Science Standards require that curricular design be guided by inquiry that is grounded in essential questions. So, what makes a great essential question? Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, in their book Essential Questions, provide the following considerations in curating essential questions to construct a curriculum.

  1. Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  2. Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  4. Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  5. Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.

The standards are not prescriptive how many essential questions should be used in curriculum design, but the prompts should guide how students will communicate conclusions in the summative assessment. Further, the BEST essential questions provide a platform for taking informed action or engaging in the civic proven practice of service learning.

The C3 Framework from the National Council for the Social Studies makes reference to “compelling questions” for inquiry design. C3Teachers maintains that compelling questions must meet two requirements.

  • First, they have to be intellectually meaty. That means that a compelling question needs to reflect an enduring issue, concern, or debate in social studies and it has to draw on multiple disciplines. For example, “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” works as a compelling question because it signals a continuing argument about how to interpret the results of the Revolution.
  • The second condition defining a compelling question is the need to be student-friendly. By student-friendly, I mean a question that reflects some quality or condition that teachers know students care about and that honors and respects students’ intellectual efforts. The American Revolution question above seems to fit these qualifications as well: It brings students into an authentic debate and it offers the possibility that adults may be confused—how could the American Revolution not be revolutionary? The latter is a condition that students tend to find especially fascinating.

The summary of compelling questions from S.G. Grant points to a key distinction between compelling questions and essential questions that Illinois educators wrestle with within curriculum design. While all essential questions are compelling, not all compelling questions are essential. Compelling questions are open-ended and debatable, but often they are contextualized. “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” applies only to the American Revolution, it does not meet McTighe and Wiggins’s consideration of a prompt that recurs over time.

I have found that Essential Questions lead more easily to the informed action of service learning. I am not sure how a student would take informed action on the question, “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” However, if I gave that question a bit of a “makeover” to really define the “why” or the enduring understanding of this unit of inquiry on the American Revolution, I might craft a question that is both compelling and essential. Some examples might include:

  • What makes an idea “revolutionary?”
  • What principles are worth fighting for?
  • When does a “moment” become a “movement?”
  • When should one question authority?
  • Is conflict inevitable?
  • Can one person make a difference?
  • To what extent have we lived up to the ideals of the American Revolution?

You can see how these questions meet the requirements of a compelling question, but also recur over time in multiple contexts, making them essential as well. The queries also point to possible informed action. Students can communicate their conclusions to the question using the curriculum content and go a step further and engage in meaningful service learning to apply their conclusions to take informed action in the community, local or global.

When embarking on constructing your own essential questions to construct inquiry, The new Educating for American Democracy (EAD) Roadmap can be a great place to start with vertically aligned, K-12, overarching thematic questions, as well as driving and guiding questions.  While driving questions are not the same as essential questions,  they can “prime the pump” as you craft your own essential question as we demonstrated in this recent webinar.  Here are some other resources I have found helpful to create essential questions.

What are some of the essential questions you are using in curriculum design? What are your favorite resources to support this work? Use the contact form to share! Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career, and civic life.