MSW 5 Newsletter

From the desk of Brad Thompson, Assistant Superintendent
Formulating Essential Questions
How do we more deliberately stay focused on
Big Ideas? How can we take a mass of
content knowledge and shape it into engaging,
thought-provoking, and effective work? How
can we avoid the twin sins of “activity-based”
and “coverage-based” teaching? The answer,
in part, is the fourth step in the “unwrapping”
process – that of framing instructional goals in
terms of “Essential Questions (EQ’s).” EQ’s
are deliberately selected to drive instruction
and assessment toward the Big Ideas. The aim
of EQ’s is to stimulate thought, to provoke
inquiry, not just pat answers. Thus, not every
question is essential. Questions are
“essential” when the investigation of the
questions leads students to discovering the
corresponding Big Ideas.
EQ’s are open-ended questions posed to
students at the beginning of a unit to stimulate
student interest and to “advertise” the Big
Ideas selected as learning goals. These
questions are most effective when they are
posted in the classroom for the duration of the
unit and frequently referenced during
instruction. The goal is for students to be able
to respond – both verbally and in writing – to
the EQ’s with their own Big Idea statements
expressed in their own words.
EQ’s are non-judgmental, engaging questions,
and answering them requires high order
thinking. They cannot be answered with a
simple “yes” or “no” or with the mere recall of
facts. These questions require students to
think, make connections, draw conclusions,
and justify their responses with supporting
details. “Why” and “How” questions are most
frequently used to frame EQ’s because they
require students to demonstrate a deep
understanding of the content in order to
answer them. In developing EQ’s, teachers
should be careful not to simply rephrase their
Big Ideas in the form of a question. In so
doing, the Big Ideas have already been
identified. EQ’s should be written in studentfriendly language.
Larry Ainsworth, Consultant with the Leadership and Learning Center, recommends that
teachers first identify Big Ideas and then craft
engaging EQ’s. He suggests teachers think of
Big Ideas as the “desired travel destination.”
By identifying the Big Ideas first, teachers
decide the final destination of the learning
journey. The “advertised” EQ’s will hopefully get the “travelers” excited about making
the “trip,” and the lessons and activities
selected will provide the “vehicle” to enable
students to get there. Remember, the ultimate
goal is for students to be able to answer the
EQ’s with Big Ideas expressed in their own
words. Thus, EQ’s make the learning of
important content the result of pursuing the
question. Because students know at the
beginning of a unit that they will be expected
to answer the EQ’s at the conclusion of the
unit, teachers often utilize the EQ’s as their
summative assessment.
Often there is a direct, one-to-one correspondence between Big Ideas and EQ’s, but this in
not an imperative. The determining factor is
whether or not the posted EQ’s will lead
students to the Big Ideas of the unit.
Check rubric and example EQ’s on the
Look for “Designing Performance Tasks” in
Issue 6.
Great Things Happen Here!
Essential Question Rubric
(Taken from Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, 2002)
Is the work focused on important, engaging, arguable, “Big Idea” questions?
Not Yet
The questions are important and thought-provoking.
They require more than a single “correct” answer, promoting inquiry
rather than recall.
They have great potential for engaging students – to hook and hold
their interest
They provide a unifying rationale and priority to the work.
They keep the learning of facts and skills focused on the Big Ideas.
The questions may be of interest to learners, but they do not focus on
the most important and arguable “Big Ideas” and/or are too vague to
guide learning and/or are too narrow and inconsequential.
While they may not have a single “correct” answer, they do not seem
likely to generate much in-depth investigation of the Big Ideas(s).
The questions are “leading” questions, used more to point to answers
than generate inquiry.
There is clearly a single “correct” unproblematic answer to be learned
via recall or simple practice.
Example Essential Questions
How does art reflect, as well as shape, culture?
How do effective writers hook and hold their readers?
What are the signs of a “fair weather” friend?
What do good readers do when they don’t understand?
How does an author create mood?
How do writers convince and persuade?
How can frogs survive in the winter?
Is DNA destiny?
Why is March windy?
Why estimate – why not be precise?
Government: How and why do we provide checks and balances on government power?
Are we still living the Civil War?
Does the Constitution provide equal rights – TODAY?
What were the costs of Westward Expansion?
Geography: Does where we live influence how we live?
Does sugar kill?
Phys. Educ.: “No Pain, No Gain – agree?
Note: Copies of all Making Standards Work Newsletters can be found on the Portal. Click on “Downloads”, then
“Teacher resources.