In 1995, a series of articles by Jamie McKenzie appeared in Technology Connection. They discussed the role of “essential questions” in a research cycle. These “essential questions” supposedly reside at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, as they require students to evaluate, analyze, or synthesize.
Bloom’s Taxonomy? At the very top? Well, then, we must have them! say the districts. And so they sweep them up. Schools plan curricula around them, post them on the wall, discuss them throughout every unit, and encourage students to talk and write about them. The “essential question” is supposed to motivate students by fostering ongoing inquiry.
This sounds like a good idea, but we should be mindful of Robert Pondiscio’s First Law of Bad Education Practice, which states that “there is not a single good idea in education that doesn’t become a bad idea the moment it hardens into orthodoxy.”
When does an essential question go wrong? First, when it is so vague that you can’t wrap your hand or mind around it–when it resembles a moon-sized sphere of cotton candy–wispy, fluffy, enormous, and awfully sticky. Second, when it is required at specific times and places (in every unit, in every classroom), without variation or exception. Mandated vagueness can be troublesome.
Here are some examples of “overarching essential questions in social studies”, compiled by Jay McTighe, coauthor of Understanding by Design.
What happened in the past?
In what ways is the past about me?
What causes change?
How do patterns of cause/effect manifest themselves in the chronology of history?
How are governments created, structured, maintained, and changed?
How is power gained, used, and justified?
What makes places unique and different?
What happens when cultures collide?
How and why do we celebrate holidays?
It wouldn’t hurt to make these questions a tad more specific. There’s no satisfaction in lolling on the peak of Bloom’s Taxonomy if you can’t do anything up there.