“To get at matters of deep and enduring understanding we need to use provocative and multilayered questions that reveal the richness and complexities of a subject” (Wiggins and McTighe).
Essential Questions represent enduring questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no response. By connecting material to a significant theme that resonates with the lives of adolescents, essential questions can add relevance and focus to a unit of study. Essential Questions can be used to guide curricular decisions and can provide the backbone for assessments.
When writing Essential Questions, here are some important ideas to keep in mind:
Essential Questions should be…
- Open ended. Essential Questions cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”; they have no “right” answer.
- Made explicit to students. The questions can be written on the board and referred to during discussions and other activities.
- Deliberately framed to engage students, using student-friendly language that makes the question relevant and easy-to-understand.
- Limited to 2-5 questions per unit.
- Connect to students’ lives and past, present or future experiences.
- Used to design curriculum – activities and materials should be selected on the basis of how they help students explore the essential questions of the unit.
- An integral part of the assessment.
Often teachers breakdown Essential Questions into sub-questions or unit questions that are more concrete and topic-specific.
Here are examples of Essential Questions used in Facing History classrooms, organized by our scope and sequence:
Individual and society: Identity
- Who am I? What are the various factors that shape identity? In what ways is our identity defined by others?
- How does society influence our identity and the choices we make?
- What does it mean to be “from” a place? How does where we are from influence who we are?
Example unit question based on this theme: How did German Jews define themselves in the 1920s and 1930s? What labels were used by others to define Jews in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s?
Membership: We & They
- How do people make distinctions between “us” and “them”? Why do they make these distinctions?
- What is community? How are decisions made about who belongs and who is excluded?
- How does a society integrate immigrants and how do immigrants transform societies?
Example unit question based on this theme: In Germany in the 1930’s, what strategies were used to create distinctions between “us” and “them”? What were the consequences of these distinctions?
Historical or literary case study: Holocaust and Human Behavior, Race and Membership, Civil Rights Movement, Armenian Genocide, etc.
- What choices do people make in the face of injustice?
- What makes it possible for neighbor to turn against neighbor?
- How is genocide and other acts of mass violence humanly possible?
- What choices do people make that allow collective violence to happen?
- Who decides how laws or rules are applied? How can we ensure that laws and rules are applied to everyone in the same way?
- What are civil rights? Who decides? How can we respond when our civil rights are violated? What can be done to strengthen the civil rights of individuals and groups?
- What is race? How can ideas about race be used and abused? What can be done to counter harmful myths about race?
- How have ideas about race been used to decide who is included and who is excluded?
Example unit question based on this theme: In Nazi German, what made it possible for ordinary citizens to murder millions of innocent children, women and men?
Judgment, Memory and Legacy
- What is justice? How can it be achieved?
- What does justice look like after genocide?
- How can individuals and societies remember and commemorate difficult histories? What is the purpose of remembering? What are the consequences for forgetting?
- How do you evaluate the legacy of historical events?
Example unit question based on this theme: What does justice look like after the Holocaust?
Choosing to Participate
- Why do some people standby during times of injustice while others try to do something to stop or prevent injustice?
- What factors influence decision-making in the face of injustice?
- Under what conditions are most people likely to feel more responsible for helping others? What factors reduce feelings of personal responsibility?
- What obstacles keep individuals from getting involved in their communities and larger world? What factors encourage participation?
Example unit question based on this theme: After the Holocaust, the international community said “Never again.” What can we do, as individuals, groups and nations, to prevent massive acts of violence in the future?