My “expanded second edition” of Understanding by Design, the classic guide to unit and lesson planning by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, is copyrighted 2005. Today the major premise of the book, that teachers should decide what learning goals we want students to achieve, design assessments to determine student mastery of those goals, and then plan learning activities “backwards” from there, has become so widely known and accepted that it is often described with the insider’s shorthand “UbD.” As in, “My district administrators are totally into UbD.”
It’s hard to argue with the common sense of the UbD approach. But there’s another key idea from the book that has not translated so well into the real world of teaching and learning, at least in history classes: essential questions. It’s not that Wiggins and McTighe’s gospel of “essential questions” has been ignored — quite the contrary. In our work with schools and districts Gary and I see lots of curriculum documents that have “essential questions” – they’re pretty much ubiquitous, and when teachers and administrators talk with us about their history courses they are often quick to reassure us, “We have essential questions!” But when we actually look at specific questions in the documents and ask people how they shape teaching and learning, we usually get confessions like, “We don’t really use that one.” Or, “We kinda just added those on, and no one really asks kids to answer them.” So the dirty little secret about most of the “essential questions” in history curriculum documents is this: they’re pretty much the exact opposite of “essential.” Most teachers and students ignore them — they make no difference at all to classroom teaching and learning.
“EX POST FACTO” ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS
So why don’t history teachers use their “essential questions” in teaching their units and lesson? There’s a much longer article to be written here about epistemology and the teaching and learning of history, but for the purposes of this blog post I’m going to suggest that most history teachers don’t use their essential questions because they are not actually written to guide instruction. According to the doctrine of UbD, teachers are supposed to use “overarching” essential questions to guide planning on the course level. We are then supposed to plan units and lessons that connect directly to those overarching questions and their “enduring understandings.” But the essential questions that are found in most curriculum documents are not guides to planning or instruction — They’re window dressing added into the documents because someone thinks it’s important to have them. They were almost certainly written after the content of the courses and units were decided.
Some of these “ex post facto” essential questions reveal their nature in their huge and general scope. Consider these three examples, the first from an American Revolution unit, and the other two from a unit on the Constitution:
“How can ideas change the world?”
“How should a government deal with conflicting interests?”
“How are governments created, structured, maintained, and changed?”
These sorts of questions can’t serve as guides to planning or instruction because a reasonable answer always amounts to, “in lots of different ways” or “it depends.” Once the question is shorn away from its specific topic it loses focus, and becomes useless. No wonder teachers ignore them.
There’s another common type of ex post facto essential question that would appear to be the result of curriculum planners getting a bit too cute, or trying to sound especially profound. Consider:
“Can nations truly coexist?”
“Can words lead to war?”
“Can peace lead to war?”
Again, shorn of topical context, the questions cease to be meaningful. Correct answers here amount to “Yes,” “Yes,” and “Yes.” So it’s not surprising that history teachers would choose to ignore “essential” questions like these.
FOUR QUESTIONS, and STORY FIRST!
The big insight of the Four Question Method is that there are really only four essential questions in history/social studies. In every unit 4QM teachers ask what happened, what the key people involved in the story were thinking, what underlying factors explain why the story of the unit turned out as it did, and what we think about it. And we help our students to explore those four questions most effectively when we give them a specific story to work with. The questions I presented above are problematic because they are entirely disconnected from the stories that inspired them in the first place. If we reanimate these questions with a specific story, they become useful and engaging:
How did new ideas about “natural rights” contribute to the American Revolution?
The Versailles Treaty was designed to prevent a second world war. Why did it fail to do so?
YOUR DISTRICT ADMINISTRATOR
So if your district administrator is “totally into UbD” and insists that your curriculum documents need “overarching essential questions,” by all means go ahead and write them. But when it’s time for you to write questions that will actually guide your teaching and your students’ learning, we think you’ll find that specific versions of the Four Questions, connected directly to the story of the unit, will be much more useful.