Framing Essential Questions
Essential Questions are Authentic
Essential questions (EQs) come from the disciplines but they are more "real" than just topics. They have a life in the mind of the learner, they take hold when the learner grapples with real problems and perplexities of the places in which we live, and they have personal meaning when the "answer" to the question is the student’s own.
Rather than asking students to classify and learn the definitions of rocks because it is a chapter in the geology text, teachers might consider a question: "What are rocks and where do they come from?" This, to us, is a much richer pathway to consider than teaching the rock cycle in isolation of the place in which we live. Students will still need to learn the rock cycle and be able to identify different kids of rock and how they form, as well as understand geologic time and earth systems.
Essential Questions Provide Direction and Purpose
Open-ended watershed studies also benefit from an essential question (EQ) to frame the learning experience. What is it that you want your students to know at the end of your study? What question will they be able to “answer?” Is your question embedded in the subject you are teaching, the place itself or a desire to give your students a chance to impact their environment? Or is it all of these together?
An essential question clarifies where you want to go. When designing curriculum, teachers wrestle to come up with an essential question that is worthwhile and manageable. The question they pose will determine what “answer” the students work towards.
What do I want my students to know? Do? Understand?
When planning, the teacher considers what students will need to know in order to construct a meaningful response to the essential question.
Erin Hopper designed a unit about how water moves in a watershed and explored the schools neighborhood to conduct investigations.
In designing the unit, she had to consider what her students already knew and what she wanted to teach them:
- They already knew the physical properties of water.
- She wanted them to observe water moving in different ways: water as waves in a puddle or stagnant water in a sheltered place, flowing down hills, over rocks, coming down as rain, becoming clouds, running across a parking lot and down a storm drain.
- She also wanted them to examine issues of water quality and the many ways that the movement of water is related to how pollutants are carried in a watershed.
- She wanted them to know some scientific terminology that describes moving water.
- She also realized that they would do plenty of "regular" school work labeling diagrams and reading in science books to better learn the principles of hydrology.
When Erin considered the second part of the question, she realized that it evoked a civic response. When students had to consider water's importance, there was the opportunity to communicate this to the community. Others could benefit from getting a better understanding of what the students learned.
Erin designed a culminating activity that gave students the opportunity to demonstrate BOTH their knowledge of how water moved AND its importance.
EQ: How does water move?
Another third grade teacher explored the essential question How does water move? Her focus was on being able to teach the properties of water in an engaging way. She wanted to introduce her students to all the different ways that water acted in the real world—before, during, and after they learned the scientific terminology for these changes. The young learners observed water on windshields, in puddles, in clouds, and on lawns. They considered what water did when it was boiled and when it was left at room temperature. They were real scientists collecting real data! They were able to demonstrate HOW WATER MOVES!
EQ: Is this water safe to drink?
What does it take for students to truly answer this question? Is the water polluted? What kind of pollution? What is located up river? Who is implicated in the quality of this water?
A Project WET activity, "Sum of the Parts," gives students the opportunity to explore human impact on moving waterways and how humans share responsibility for keeping waters clean.
In examining the challenges of controlling nonpoint source pollution, students must comprehend the complexities of land use and its impact on water quality.
EQ: How much chemistry would they have to know to understand the issue of flouride in the water?
Might this understanding be deeper when linked to a real issue such as dental health? Think of the many things that a student would have to learn about to become fluent about this issue. And it becomes not just about chemistry anymore. They would learn about many other things as well:
Evidence of understanding that is transferable involves assessing for students’ capacity to use their knowledge thoughtfully and to apply it effectively in diverse settings—that is to do the subject”
Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, p. 48
- What is tooth decay?
- How does flouride prevent tooth decay?
- Why is flouride added to water supplies?
- Are there side affects of flouride?
- How is flouride introduced to municipal water systems?
- What causes fluorosis—a spotting and streaking of teeth attributed to too much fluoride?
- How much fluoride is naturally occurring in the soil?
- Are there consumer and marketing issues?
When students explore real questions in real places the learning transcends subject boundaries and can have a real and lasting impact on environmental protection.