The Essential Question solved a problem. It gave teachers and those who train and supervise them a way to talk about getting beyond content coverage. The problem with content coverage is that it’s boring for students and endless for teachers. In our field, History/Social Studies, new content is piling up all the time. Rather than choosing randomly or deferring to textbook publishers or received wisdom, the Essential Question allowed teachers to make motivated, coherent choices about curriculum, and so make their courses more interesting and manageable. For each unit, identify an Essential Question and then plan around it. Teach only what students need to know in order to answer the Essential Question.

This apparently elegant solution has generated problems of its own. The biggest one is that, in practice, teachers have a really hard time formulating Essential Questions that make sense to students while doing justice to their subject matter. Interesting Essential Questions tend to be far too generic to guide actual teacher choices about curriculum. When is it okay to kill? Great question. But which content should we use to answer it, and why? Alternatively, teachers receive their wisdom — they cover what the textbook says — and tack on a question at the end and call it “essential.” What factors led to imperialism…?

There are only Four Essential Questions in History/Social Studies

We can solve the problems created by Essential Questions by defining the actual essential questions in each field. We’ve done it in History/Social Studies, with excellent results. Our framework, called the Four Question Method, has translated McTighe and Wiggins’ generic advice — plan around interesting, open-ended questions — into a discipline-specific framework for generating the questions that drive thinking skills in History and Social Studies.

Rather than inventing broad, open-ended questions for each unit, Jon and I began to watch, sort, and categorize the questions our best teachers actually used to frame lesson and assessment questions. We discovered that there are four essential questions that history teachers actually think are important, whether they’re aware of it or not. And we discovered that, when we pointed out our discovery to teachers, they got better at asking and answering questions themselves, and so did their students. Finally, we figured out how to name the essential thinking skills that allow students to answer the core questions. Doing that allowed both teachers and students to get beyond skill check-off lists and to begin *doing* things that matter with their new-found skills: answering interesting and important questions in our field.

It turns out that all interesting questions asked and answered in Social Studies classes are variants of one of four simple, generic questions. It turns out, further, that if you ask and answer these questions in order, you get a pretty good unit plan and a very handy reading strategy. They are:

  1. What happened?
  2. What were they thinking?
  3. Why then and there?
  4. What do we think about that?

Story First!

Our ‘aha’ moment, and the insight that’s been most powerful for the teachers we’ve trained, is that thinking in our field starts with knowing a story. The now-traditional Essential Question misses this point: open-ended, general questions can only be answered, or even appear as questions at all, to people who have coherent, ordered background knowledge. The old Essential Question in history, typically skipped the story. That’s why they tended to hang in the air, unrelated to specific content, or got tacked on after the story was already told.

What happened?, as simple and obvious as it appears, turns out to be the Ur-thinking question in history. And answering it requires skill. This was the second ‘aha’: constructing historical narratives with students is tons of work. It requires training. And it’s worth it, because what it does is to release both teachers and students from the burden of memorizing granular facts, the original problem that the Essential Question was meant to solve. “What happened?” becomes a question when the observer notices a change over time, something new and notable in human affairs. In 2008, the US elected its first African American President, a Democrat. He served two terms and left office with reasonable popularity numbers. In 2016, Americans elected a populist Republican with no experience in political office, with shallow connections to the Republican Party. What happened?

People who get good at framing and telling stories about change over time — who know how to narrate, the skill associated with answering What happened? Questions — tend to notice additional questions. Once you tell the story, with knowledge and conviction, curiosity plus discipline drives the rest. What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that? Each of these questions has a cluster of skillful activities, defined and practiced by experts schooled in an academic discipline, that can be named for young people and taught to them. They can learn to interpret in response to Q2, explain in response to Q3, and judge in response to Q4.

Most of the old Essential Questions were Q3s and Q4s, which makes sense. Both are generalizing questions. “Why then and there?” has a comparative cousin: under what conditions do things like this — the election of populist, anti-institutional candidates — tend to occur? That was the point of the Essential Question: to provoke learning that bridges, that feels and is relevant to more situations than just the case study in question. The same is true of judgment: “What do we think about that?” invites us to draw practical and ethical lessons that we will in turn test and apply in other cases. When do we say that populist anti-institutionalism is a healthy corrective and when a danger to the republic?

In order to get to these generalizing questions, we needed to start with, not facts, but stories. Defining essential questions in our field helps history and social studies teachers to plan better, teacher teams to collaborate better, and students to learn better. It works. We’ve seen it and done it, and you can, too.