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Asking Essential Questions

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									                                Asking Essential Questions
What is an essential question? It is the crucial starting point, the point of inquiry, in an
integrative approach to learning in which students are engaged in real world explorations that are
meaningful and have purpose. When essential questions are used correctly, academic standards
are met while lines between content areas blend. Because they are often answering Why?, How?,
and Which?, responses to good essential questions can not be found, they must be developed
from research, experimentation, investigation, and practical experience. They are the basis of
project-based learning.

A portion of the 2004 spring round of MLTI Content Meetings was dedicated to learning about
and creating essential questions around the Maine Learning Results. Questions included in this
article are only a portion of those created by Content Meeting participants. Investigating any one
of the essential questions below will meet a number of MLR standards outside the specified
content of focus.

As stated in the State of Maine Learning Results, “Teachers are encouraged to approach the
standards from an interdisciplinary perspective when designing curriculum and planning
instructional activities.” (Preface iv) “For example, a science project may include historical
research, data collection and mathematical analysis, followed by preparation of a narrative report
with freehand illustrations, and conclude with a computer-assisted oral presentation to the class,
thus combining, in this example, elements from at least five content areas into one project.”
(Preface iii) Essential questions lend themselves to such an approach.

The most meaningful essential questions are created by students. (I suggest a class question to be
answered by all students rather than a different question for each student.) However, many
teachers prefer to embark on this approach to teaching and learning through their own creation of
the essential question. As they and their students become more familiar with investigating
essential questions and Project Based Learning, students become the originators of inquiry based
on standards of learning.

Points to remember when creating essential questions:
   • Before thinking about what you want to ask, be clear about what you want students to
        learn. Ask yourself: “What is the big picture, the life-long learning, I want my students to
        come away with?” Once you are clear with this for yourself, you can then be clear with
        your students.
   • Let students know the purpose of the learning. Don’t hide the standards from them or
        why they are necessary for learning.
   • Relate the essential question to their world.
   • Avoid assigning a “tried and true essay question” that is now just worded differently.
   • Don’t have a final project in mind and all of the steps and pieces planned out before
        formulating a question. A big part of Project-Based Learning and asking essential
        questions is allowing students to design how they will disclose their information.
   • Don’t have a big checklist of what you want students to do before you know what you
        want them to learn.



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    •   Remember that the essential question is the big, overall, driving force behind a project.
        Details, facts, and points come from answering “foundation questions”.
    •   Answering essential questions take time and planning, but the rewards and learning far
        outweigh the time and effort to implement.

For more information on Project Based Learning and essential questions, please visit
MaineLearns-Educator Assistants-Project Based Learning for a complete list of resources.

The following essential questions were based on the Maine Learning Results and created by
Maine middle school teachers in the 2004 MLTI Content Meetings:

SOCIAL STUDIES: HISTORY
A. CHRONOLOGY
Students will use the chronology of history and major eras to demonstrate the relationships of
events and people.

Essential Questions
How have 19th and 20th Century American treaties shaped the lives of Maine people
today? (What do you need to know to answer this question? Consider the major treaties, why
they were written, and the events that lead to their conception. Finding out how they apply to the
lives of Maine people gives kids a reason to investigate and learn.)
How do the events and people from the colonial period impact our lives today? (In order to
understand the impact, students need to also understand what happened in colonial times and
how the past can impact the future.)
Why would people in one country turn against each other? (This was developed with the
Civil War in mind. Taking this theme could not only lead students into more depth within the
Civil War, but to also take their findings and apply them to current events or other eras in
history.)
If you lived in ________ country, when would you want to have been born? (Wow! This
question leads to a great study of an era, which ever one they may choose.)
Which decade, 1950 to 1980, would you choose to be a teenager and why? (This is similar to
the previous and applicable to student interest. Make it meaningful for them.)
If you could be born in any era (or choose a spread of years) in Maine history, when would
you be born and why?
If James Madison moved to Bangor, ME today, would he run for ____ and would he like it.
(Think of all of the information that must be gathered to just begin to answer this question.)


B. HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE, CONCEPTS, AND PATTERNS.
Students will develop historical knowledge of major events, people, and enduring themes in the
United States, in Maine, and throughout world history.

Essential Questions:
Andrew Jackson: is he good choice for the $20 bill? (Or…who might be better?) Instead of
doing the usual pick a president and write a report, one teacher decided to have students research




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and investigate who they believe should be on the $20 bill. If a student declares that Andrew
Jackson is a good choice, then ask that student, “Why?”
What makes a great president? (This is another twist to the easily copied report on a president.
Discover the characteristics of the many and decide on what YOU think makes a great president.
There is no one answer to this question that must be backed by evidence and proof.)
How does conflict change a person's life?
How does the quest for power lead to war? (Focus on a period for study and have students
apply knowledge learned to another era. This is a great question for History Standards A and B.)
Why do people move? (This question began with the topic of immigration and grew into the
broader question which, when you think about it, is the root of this subject. Start with broad and
select eras in which to focus.)
Why does language change? (A historical question with an application to English C or an
English question with an application to history. Why make a choice? Do both at the same time.
Add Modern and Classical Languages Standard F, also.)
How does the ethical treatment of animals influence the running of the Iditarod?
(Historical, relate to literature, ethics, civic participation.)

SOCIAL STUDIES: CIVICS AND GOVERNMENT
A. RIGHTS, RESPONSIBILITIES, AND PARTICIPATION
Students will understand the rights and responsibilities of civic life and will employ the skills of
effective civic participation.

Essential Questions:
How can my community reduce waste? (The thinking behind this was learning about “rights,
responsibilities, and participation” through involvement in a community project. What began as a
simple litter collection day in the spring, grew into an issue of waste management and recycling.)
Which is better, citizenship granted at birth or citizenship earned? (Rather than simple learn
what the requirements are for U.S. citizenship, students will have to decide how that citizenship
may be granted and what should be required by all in order to be a good citizen.)
Why is it important for you to be an informed citizen, participating in our democratic
process? (If students say it isn’t important, they need to explain why. Contradictory opinions
are a part of our society.)

SOCIAL STUDIES: ECONOMICS
A. PERSONAL AND CONSUMER SPENDING
Students will understand that economic decisions are based on the availability of resources and
the costs and benefits of choices.

Essential Questions:
How would your life change if your parents won the lottery? (Spend it all? Invest? Take it all
up front as cash or consider yearly payments? These are some important questions and ideas to
consider when a large amount of money is being considered.)
How would your life change if your parents lost their jobs? (The flip side of the coin.
Interesting to think about.)
Which city is the best? More families are moving today then in the past due to the economy.
Imagine that your family has decided to move from the West Coast to the New England area to



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improve their life and to get new jobs. Where would they choose to live and why? (This scenario
could also apply to towns in Maine, immigration, and more?)

C. COMPARATIVE SYSTEMS
Students will analyze how different economic systems function and change over time.

Essential Questions:
How could you become rich in ____? (Choose a country and discover how to be successful.
This could also extend to Economic standards A, B, and D.)

D. INTERNATIONAL TRADE AND GLOBAL INTERDEPENDENCE
Students will understand the patterns and results of international trade.

Essential Questions:
How does trade affect your life? (There are many implications for this question in the state of
Maine: disappearing factories, unemployment, purchases kids make. This question gives a
personal twist to an important aspect of our economy.)

ENGLISH
B. LITERATURE AND CULTURE
Students will use reading, listening, and viewing strategies to experience, understand, and
appreciate literature and culture.

Essential Questions:
How does your environment affect your writing?

E. PROCESS OF WRITING AND SPEAKING
Students will demonstrate the ability to use the skills and strategies of the writing process.

Essential Questions:
Writing is about power: How can improved writing make me more powerful? (Students
need a purpose to want to improve their skills and what better way than to show how it makes
them more powerful.)

G. STYLISTIC AND RHETORICAL ASPECTS OF WRITING AND SPEAKING.
Students will use stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing and speaking to explore ideas, to
present lines of thought, to represent and reflect on human experience, and to communicate
feelings, knowledge, and opinions.

Essential Questions:
How are opinions formed? (If we want students to be influential writers, they first must learn
how to influence. Again, this question and the following bring students to work in their world
with implications for life time learning. What student doesn’t want everyone to think as they
do?)
How do we get people to think the way we do?




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CAREER PREPARATION
A. PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
Students will be knowledgeable about the world of work, explore careers, and relate personal
skills, aptitudes, and abilities to future career decisions.

Essential Questions:
How do successful people meet their goals? (Through interviews, research, reflection, and
more students will learn of the characteristics that lead individuals to success.)

MODERN AND CLASSICAL LANGUAGES
C. ORAL AND WRITTEN PRESENTATION
Students will develop skills in oral and written presentations for one-way communication with an
individual or a group.

Essential Questions:
You are an exchange student in a French speaking country. How can you communicate
your life to your host family in their language? How can they communicate to you? (This is
thought provoking with many ways to answer. Make it more challenging and combine it with the
essential question under English G and have the student convince them of something.)
How would a new student from a foreign country learn our language? If you went to their
country, how would you learn theirs?


SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
M. IMPLICATIONS OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Students will understand the historical, social, economic, environmental, and ethical implications
of science and technology.

Essential Questions:
Why do people invent things? (Historical, cultural, and scientific implications. This could be a
rich study.)
How have inventions impacted the social and environmental viability of Maine people?
(Maine history, economics, and cultural changes are easily interwoven in this question.)

VISUAL AND PERFORMING ARTS
B. CULTURAL HERITAGE
Students will understand the cultural contributions (social, ethical, political, religious
dimensions) of the arts, how the arts shape and are shaped by prevailing cultural an social beliefs
and values, and recognize exemplary works from a variety of cultures and historical periods.

Essential Questions
How do museums/collections tell a story?
How does one specific visual or performing art contribute to a particular cultural heritage?
(This could also be related to their own cultural heritage.)

C. CRITICISM AND AESTHETICS



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Students will reflect upon and assess the characteristics and merits of art works.

Essential Questions
How do you gain your perceptions of art?
How do you know good art when you see it? (Both of these questions are great in connecting
the student to art through their own reality.)




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