How essential is the essential question?

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.


  1. Barry Garelick says:

    I had to read “Understanding by Design” by McTighe in ed school. It’s all about a “top down” approach to education. Work backwards. Decide what the goal of learning is and then figure out what you have to teach to get to that goal. This type of truism is hard to disagree with until you see how it’s implemented as evidenced by your example. It’s akin to throwing a kid into the deep end of a swimming pool, with the instruction to swim to the other side and saying, “Now would be a good time to learn the breast stroke.”

  2. I like Understanding by Design. I decide what the kids need to be able to know and do by the end of the year, start with what they do know at the beginning, and then design the year in small steps from A to B. Eliminates the pointless parade of books and “mini-lessons” (heaven forbid we teach a complete lesson) approach to teaching English. Kiddos need to know the figures of speech? No problem. Define them, in the next unit identify them, in the next unit identify and give them heavy clues as to effect, by the last unit they are identifying and analyzing.

    Not sure how anybody screws up such a basic idea as that, but it takes all kinds.

  3. You mean like when the culture of reasonable people combines with the culture of eduBS?

    Seems like eduBS wins 2 out of 3.

  4. “In what ways is the past about me?”

    Because we really, really need more narcissists!

  5. ditto what David Foster said!

    The past isn’t about me at all because well, I wasn’t around yet!

    The question “in which ways do the events of the past influence my life?” *IS* a legitimate one. But the bulk of the focus should be on the history rather than on the present.


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