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Essential Questions


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									  The material below first appeared in a series of six articles published by Technology
Connection commencing in May, 1995. The series outlined the seven stages required to complete
a full research investigation using a model called the Research Cycle. This material is now
available in the electronic book, Net Profit in a Post Modem World.

II. Framing Essential Questions

We are fighting a long school history of topical research. For decades students have been sent to
the library to "find out about" some topic. This tradition has led to information gathering but
little analysis or thought.

Essential questions set students and staff free from this tedious and wasteful ritual. Research
becomes motivating and meaningful. An essential question has the following attributes:

¥ Essential questions reside at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy (Bloom, 1954). They require
students to EVALUATE (make a thoughtful choice between options, with the choice based upon
clearly stated criteria), to SYNTHESIZE (invent a new or different version) or to ANALYZE
(develop a thorough and complex understanding through skillful questioning).

¥ Essential questions spark our curiosity and sense of wonder. They derive from some deep wish
to understand some thing which matters to us.

¥ Answers to essential questions cannot be found. They must be invented. It is something like
cooking a great meal. The researcher goes out on a shopping expedition for the raw ingredients,
but "the proof is in the pudding." Students must construct their own answers and make their own
meaning from the information they have gathered. They create insight.

¥ Answering such questions may take a life time, and even then, the answers may only be
tentative ones. This kind of research, like good writing, should proceed over the course of several
weeks, with much of the information gathering taking place outside of formally scheduled class

¥ Essential questions engage students in the kinds of real life applied problem-solving suggested
by nearly every new curriculum report or outline curriculum standards such as the NCTM and
the Science Standards.

¥ Essential questions usually lend themselves well to multidisciplinary investigations, requiring
that students apply the skills and perspectives of math and language arts while wrestling with
content from social studies or science.

It would be best if students could learn to frame their own essential questions, but in most cases
they will require several experiences with teacher generated questions before they can shed years
of practice with trivial information-gathering questions.
Here are three middle school examples:


"With the economy shifting and changing, families are sometimes forced to move to entirely
different regions in order to find jobs. Imagine that the families in your team are all moving from
the West Coast to New England. Create a multimedia presentation which you might share with
your parents recommending the best New England city to move to from the following list of
cities. Your choice must be based upon the availability of jobs your parents can fill and other
criteria identified and listed by your team related to categories such as recreation, education,
entertainment, climate, etc."


"There is much disagreement among people who plan for student use of the Internet regarding
what kinds of access should be permitted. Some people are afraid that students will come into
contact with offensive materials. Others are afraid that limitations will limit student's freedoms.
Imagine that your team has been assigned the task of revising the attached sample policy from
School District X. Compare this policy with others from around the nation and then produce a
clear list of recommended amendments, explaining your reasons for each of your suggestions.
You will prepare a persuasive multimedia presentation as if speaking before the district's board
of education."


"Some people think that CD-ROM edutainment products may do damage to young people. What
seem to be the biggest risks people see connected with such products and what evidence can you
find to dispute or substantiate their fears? Create a persuasive multimedia report which might
appear on the evening news as a consumer advisory for parents."

When teams are engaged in responding to questions which require this kind of thinking, there is
little danger that they will be satisfied with "surfing" the Net. After an hour of surfing they are
likely to start complaining. "This isn't getting us anywhere!"

III. Identifying Subsidiary Questions

One of the first steps students take in their teams is the listing of smaller questions which will
help them answer their main question. They need to understand how large questions are really
the parent and grandparent of many related questions, all of which can nest within the largest
question like small Russian dolls. Effective research results from formulating as many categories
of related questions as possible, with each category suggesting missing questions.

When a team begins the task of selecting a city in New England, for example, they must list
selection criteria related to categories such as climate. "What do we want to know about
climate?" the team asks. "I don't like cold weather!" complains one member. "OK, then, what are
the highs and lows and average temperatures for each city. What else do we want to know?"
IV. Stating Suppositions - Hypothesizing and Predicting

Before they proceed very far, students list suppositions, pose hypotheses and make predictions -
many and most of which will be revised as information is gathered. This thought process helps to
provide a basis for construction of meaning.

Marty and Jacqueline Brooks' 1993 ASCD publication In Search of Understanding: the Case for
Constructivist Classrooms makes a great primer describing this student thought process.

The Brooks stress the importance of students stating suppositions early in the planning process.
The research team is speculating. "What do you suppose? Why do you suppose? How do you
suppose?" Heeding their intuition and checking their previous experience or knowledge base,
students list their best guesses, their hunches, their conjectures. These are shots in the dark.
Research then brings light to the subject. Information proves illuminating. Students revise their
guesswork. They reconstruct meaning.

Using Essential Questions to Frame Curriculum-Based Service learning

Essential Questions to Frame Curriculum-Based Service Learning

Using essential questions in curriculum-based service learning helps organize the project around
specific academic concepts related to course work and the service-learning project. They link the
concepts and principles between academic content and the service to create a deeper, more
rigorous learning experience. A good essential question sets the stage for the inquiry process and
the search for understanding on many different levels.

Roy Travers, Higher Education Coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Education and
Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate school of Education, describes good essential
questions as:

       Open ended, yet focus inquiry on a specific topic
       Non-judgmental, but answering them requires high-level cognitive work, such as the
        development of a rich description, model, evaluation or judgment.
       Contain emotive force and intellectual bite. As students, educators, and world citizens, we must
        try to answer them.
       Succinct. They contain only a handful of words—yet they demand a lot.

Criteria for Essential Questions

       Go to the heart of the discipline
       Have no one or several obvious right answers
      The question is non-judgmental
      Require high level cognitive thinking to be made visible (Bloom’s Taxonomy)
      Recur throughout one’s learning
      Are framed to provoke and sustain student interest
      Contain emotive force and intellectual bite
      Are demonstrated by a student performance
      Are open-ended, yet focus inquiry on a specific topic
      Are succinct

From Clover Park School District (Lakewood, Washington) Workshop on Essential Questions,

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