Essential Questions

As we work on curriculum mapping using the backwards design model, I often hear from teachers that they need assistance in crafting essential questions for the first time.  My quick answer is that essential questions are the types of questions that lead us to ponder the big ideas and enduring understandings. With my history background, I immediately go to the following examples of “What causes civil wars?” or “What is a revolution?”  Then I try to explain how the essential questions fit into the content and standards we teach such as the industrial revolution, French revolution, or the current communications/electronic changes going on today.

It wasn’t until this last week, that essential questions and enduring understandings really took hold for me, as a result of 1:1 conversations with my 5 year old son Liam.  Have you ever spent extended time with an inquisitive kindergartener?  Everything he sees and processes leads to more and more questions and he is not afraid to ask them.  That is when I realized that essential questions are questions that begin at his age and remain with us in some form throughout our lifetime.

  • We were leaving a museum and he heard people speaking in another language and asked “Why are they speaking another language.  Why aren’t they speaking English?”  
  • In a discussion about how much an item costs, Liam asks, “Where does money come from?  How do you get it?  Why does everything cost something?”  
  • Liam has a great fascination with age.  “How old do people usually live?  Why do some people live to be 100 and others don’t?”
  • “If somebody is in another universe, do they know we are here in this universe?”
  • “What were the first animals that lived on Earth? You know, before there were dinosaurs?”
  • “How do spies learn how to be spies?  Do they go to school for that?  What would I have to do to be a spy?” (Ok…so maybe not an essential question, but an interesting question for sure.)
When I hear these questions, I often take a deep breath and ponder how I’m going to answer them with enough detail that it makes sense, but not too much that it is confusing.  I also think about the enduring understandings each question offers: the importance of celebration of diversity and culture, the purpose of currency, the role of genetics and wellness, the laws of the universe, and the history of espionage.

And the answer I gave to how to become a spy? “Yes, they go to school.  Lots and lots of school.  They study languages and cultures, math and science.  They are really smart, so if you want to be a spy, you need to learn as much as you can in school and then go to college.”  🙂

For a more scholarly look at essential questions please check out this resource:  Essential Questions
Otherwise, just spend some time with a kindergartener!

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