Understanding by Design: Essential Questions

Understanding by DesignAs I read the chapter “Essential Questions: Doorways to Understanding” in Understanding by Design, I realized that many educators I know have an erroneous understanding of what essential questions are and how to use them.  For instance, I can remember the middle school principal I worked with encouraging me to post essential questions on my board.  I didn’t know what they were, and he explained them as what you want the students to get out of the lesson, that is the objectives, posed in question form.  So my initial forays into composing essential questions looked something like “How do we use semicolons?”  Where is the opportunity for intense inquiry in that?

Wiggins and McTighe define essential questions as “questions that are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence… Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions — including thoughtful student questions — not just pat answers” (106).  In order to think in terms of questions, “[i]nstead of thinking of content as something to be covered, consider knowledge and skill as the means of addressing questions central to understanding key issues in your subject” (107).  The value of framing a course or unit in terms of essential questions is invaluable:

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)

The key misunderstandings my former principal had regarding essential questions (which became my own after he imparted them to me) are as follows:

  • Essential questions are simply lesson objectives reworded in an interrogative format.
  • Essential questions are posted on the board and changed each day to reflect the goals of the lesson.
  • Essential questions will be answered that day (week, unit, year, etc.).

However, according to Wiggins and McTighe, essential questions actually have one or more of the following meanings:

  • Essential questions are “important questions that recur throughout all our lives.”  They are “broad in scope and timeless by nature.”
  • Essential questions  refer to “core ideas and inquiries within a discipline.”  They “point to the core of big ideas in a subject and to the frontiers of technical knowledge.  They are historically important and alive in the field.”
  • Essential questions help “students effectively inquire and make sense of important but complicated ideas, knowledge, and know-how — a bridge to findings that experts may believe are settled but learners do not yet grasp or see as valuable.”
  • Essential questions “will most engage a specific and diverse set of learners.”  They “hook and hold the attention of your students.” (108-109)

The first meaning really resonated with me.  All of us have some line of inquiry, some essential questions, that we haven’t answered yet.  For example, one of mine might be “What teaching methods and practices will most engage my students and enable them to leave my class, as our school’s mission statement promises, a ‘knowledgeable, thinking, responsible, Jewish adult’?”  In posing essential questions of this type, we teach our student that “education is not just about learning ‘the answer’ but about learning how to learn” (108).  In our culture, we often nail politicians for “waffling” when they change their minds about something.  If we were really teaching our students how to think, as adults they might realize that “we are likely to change our minds in response to reflection and experience concerning such questions as we go through life, and changes of mind are not only expected but beneficial” (108).

In framing essential questions, we must first as what our intent is.  If we don’t know “why we pose it, how we intend students to tackle it, and what we expect for learning activities and assessments,” we don’t really know really know what we want (110).

In the absence of well-designed and deliberate inquiry as a follow-up to our asking the question, even essential-sounding questions end up merely rhetorical.  Conversely, questions that sound rather mundane in isolation might become increasingly paradoxical, and the design makes clear that digging deeper is mandatory. (111)

Wiggins and McTighe argue against using a certain format for framing essential questions, and they note that many times we think of fairly straightforward “yes/no, either/or, and who/what/when questions” as inappropriate for deeper inquiry (111).  But what about “Is The Catcher in the Rye a comedy or a tragedy?” (111).  On the surface, it’s question with a one-word answer, but if we think about it, we realize that the novel has elements of both, and asking such a question can probe students’ understanding of the novel as well as the ideas of comedy and tragedy in literature and, indeed, even in life.

Essential questions may be framed as either “overarching questions” that are “valuable for framing courses and programs of study… around the truly big ideas” and “topical questions” that “lead to specific topical understandings within a unit” (114).  Wiggins and McTighe suggest created “related sets” of overarching and topical questions (114).  For  example, the overarching question “How do authors use different story elements to establish mood?” can be paired with “How does John Updike use setting to establish mood?” and “How does Ernest Hemingway use language to establish a mood?” (115).

In addition, essential questions should be few in number — “two to five per unit” (121).  The authors argue against composing too many questions, as “prioritiz[ing] content” enables students to “focus on a few key questions” (121).

The authors have a great list of tips for using essential questions on p. 121, but one idea jumped out in me.  “Help students to personalize the questions.  Have them share examples, personal stories, and hunches.  Encourage them to bring in clippings and artifacts to help make the questions come alive” (121).  I have, at points in the past, asked for volunteers to contribute to a Grammar Wall of Shame — a section of wall in my classroom devoted to grammar, usage, and mechanical errors we found in print.  Some students liked the idea so much that they were constantly on the lookout for mistakes.  They brought in signs their peers had posted, articles in the newspaper, and even photocopied textbook and novel pages.  I could fill a wall with Philippa Gregory’s comma splices alone!  It occurred to me as I read that I could somehow frame this activity into the kind of essential question described.  A Grammar Wall would enable students to bring in their own examples, and thus personalize and share examples, of their own brushes with poor grammar, which might lead to a topical understanding of why good grammar is important (and not just so cheeky English teachers and student will refrain from mocking you).

This chapter ends with a bang in terms of thought provoking ideas.  “Our students need a curriculum that treats them more like potential performers than sideline observers” (122).  Students describe school or classes as something to get through.  No wonder!  They  aren’t really often asked to participate in it, to use what they know or think about what they’re learning beyond regurgitating for a test!  I want my class to be a class that students will say is challenging and makes them think about things in new ways.  One quibble I have always had with RateMyTeachers.com and the similar RateMyProfessors.com is that one of their criteria for a good teacher is an easy class.  In what way do we learn anything, and therefore by extension can we say a teacher is good if we are only after an easy class, which really means an easy A?  Is that all we care about?  That grade?  Well, yes, it can be.  We have all been frustrated, I’m sure, at one time or another by hearing “Is this going to be on the test? Is this what you want?  How long does the paper have to be?” (122).  What we need to do, then, is step back and see whether we have created a class based on “an unending stream of leading questions” (122).

We sometimes send students the message that getting through the content is more important than their own questions.  We have trained students that not to know something and be curious about it is risky:

The learners’ own questions often do not seem important to them.  ‘I know this sounds stupid…’ is often the preface to a wonderful question.  Why the self-deprecation?  It is not merely developmental or a function of shyness.  An unending dose of straightforward coverage and the sense that school is about ‘right answers’ can easily make it seem as if the experts do not have questions, only the foolish and ignorant do. (122)

This passage made me recall a question I asked in my Descriptive Astronomy class.  I was so embarrassed by my lack of understanding about this issue that I waited to ask the question after class, and I prefaced it with the “This might be a stupid question” caveat.  My professor assured me that it definitely wasn’t, which emboldened me a bit.  You see, when you look up in the sky, all you see are stars.  It didn’t occur to me that the stars you see — all of them — are all in the Milky Way galaxy.  I had failed somewhere along the line to understand that stars are all located inside galaxies, unless, as Dr. Magnani explained, galaxies collide and a star gets knocked out of the galaxy.  All of a sudden the universe seemed both a whole lot smaller — these stars were all my neighbors — and a whole lot larger — these stars I could see were just my neighbors; a seemingly infinite reach beyond lay other galaxies and stars I couldn’t even see.  Obviously it really blew my mind if I am still thinking about it over 15 years later!  Is it any wonder I thought that with ideas like that to occupy me, maybe I should change my major?  That’s what I want to do with kids.  I want them to be so intrigued by their learning that they think it’s worthwhile and interesting even after they leave my class, even years later.

To constantly put before learners a curriculum framed by essential questions is to leave a lasting impression about not only the nature of knowledge but also the importance and power of their intellectual freedom. (123)

Essential questions “keep us focused on inquiry as opposed to just answers” (124).

At the very end of the chapter, the authors return to Bob the health teacher, who is designing a unit on diet.  His observations were mine, so I’ll leave you with them:

As I reflect on my own education, I can’t recall ever being in a course in which the content was explicitly framed around important, thought-provoking questions.  Some of my teachers and professors asked thought-provoking questions during class, but these unit (and essential) questions are different.  I see how they might provide a focus for all the work and knowledge mastery, if done right.  I now feel a bit cheated because I’m beginning to realize the power of these overarching questions for pointing to the bigger ideas within a subject or topic. (125)

The thought that struck me as I finished the chapter is that students learn in spite of school too often, and not because of school.

Work Cited: Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.

[tags]Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, UbD, Understanding by Design, essential questions, curriculum, assessment, education[/tags]

2 thoughts on “Understanding by Design: Essential Questions”

  1. I believe your principal was referring to essential questions as they are defined by Learning-Focused Schools.

    This confusion is currently happening in my school, as we appear to be attempting to implement aspects of Learning-Focused School as well as UBD.

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