Planning Curriculum: Essential Questions
Are you teaching history or science in your homeschool? Then my new video about essential questions is for you. You’ll see several examples of units and their essential questions, both in history and in science, and hear my thoughts on why planning units with essential questions is so beneficial.
What is an essential question?
An essential question is a big picture question that is meant to focus and organize your unit study. It generally can’t be answered by a yes or no, or a recitation of fact. Instead, it’s meant to be debated and thought deeply about.
Even seemingly simple content for younger children can include an essential question. In the video, I show several examples of kindergarten and 1st grade level units that include essential questions.
“What year did Columbus sail from Spain?” is not an essential question, but “Does Columbus deserve a holiday named after him?” might be.
More Examples of Essential Questions
If you’d like to see a list of essential questions from different domains, this book excerpt contains a nice list. The questions are drawn from different domains, which is helpful too. Here are some of my favorites from this list:
- How can we know what really happened in the past?
- How should governments balance the rights of individuals with the common good?
- Why and how do scientific theories change?
- How can we best measure what we cannot directly see?
- What can artworks tell us about a culture or society?
- How can I explore and describe cultures without stereotyping them?
How to Come Up With Essential Questions
I like to begin unit planning by gathering information – getting the “lay of the land”. I may have a general sense of what I want to focus on, but I’m open to possibilities. Once I have material to work with, I look for patterns, themes, and ideas. I try to answer for myself, “Why is this important? What is the big picture?”
If I’m feeling stuck, I might search using the term “essential question [name of topic or unit]”. This gives me a sense of what other educators are thinking, even if I don’t agree with or use their ideas.
How to Use Essential Questions With Your Child
There are many ways to explore the essential questions with your child once the unit gets going. You can use them as the basis for discussion, ask your child to write about them, debate them at the dinner table, or hang them up and use Post Its to write answers and ideas. You can revisit them as the unit goes on to see if the answers change. Your child may even have some questions of their own to add.
If a question isn’t sparking discussion or interest, you may wish to find a book or video that addresses it in a fun new way. Or, you can add in a project or experiment that explores it.
At the end of the unit, you and your child can create a final project expressing an answer. Or write down your conclusions in response to the essential questions.
One Question to Rule Them All?
One of the most effective uses of essential questions that I saw was during my time as a student teacher. It was right after 9/11 in New York City, and I was assigned to a 5th grade class in a public school. The students were deeply anxious about the terrorist attack and wondering about the rhetoric going on in the country at that time. The Patriot Act had just been passed, and tensions were running high.
The teacher selected the essential question, “What does it mean to be an American?”
This question stayed up, in the front and center of the classroom, for the entire year. The kids discussed it when they studied Ellis Island. And they discussed it during current events. It even came up when the school debated whether to start saying the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. And when the kids put on a play about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
If a question is powerful, it will stay with your child long after the unit is over.
I could easily see this essential question applying today, in 2018. It’s stayed with me for 17 years.
Using Essential Questions with the Free History Planner
The first column on the left hand side of the planner is for essential questions. Although there’s plenty of space, you don’t need to fill it with questions. Two or three will suffice (or even one!)
If you need a copy of my free planner, you can download it here.