Last week Gary wrote about the persistence of “Essential Questions” in our field, even though we know that they don’t help teachers plan or students learn. I’m going to tag along here with a short post on the same topic. During our recent workshop day with curriculum planners at Uncommon Schools I had a similar experience to the one Gary described last week. I was working with a pair of teachers, and we were finalizing the narrative for a unit in world history when one of them suggested, “Maybe we should connect it back to an essential question to tie it all together.” So I asked, “What did you have in mind?” She suggested, “Does religion impact culture, and does culture impact religion?” 

I think this experience epitomizes two problems with essential questions. First of all, teachers reach for them out of a sense of obligation. The unit we were working on was coming along fine — there was nothing wrong with it. But I think the teacher who suggested the essential question did so because she felt that the unit was somehow incomplete, or lacking. So many of us are conditioned to think that if we’re not teaching about some hugely important overarching concept we must not be doing a good job. We don’t want to be the history teachers who “just teach facts.” We don’t want to be boring. We want to be teaching about Big Ideas — and essential questions seem like Big Ideas. 

Second, the actual question that this teacher suggested is so generalized that it is in fact boring. “Does religion impact culture?” Yes. “Does culture impact religion?” Yes. The question, if taken seriously, is meaningless. Wiggins and McTighe, the inventors of the essential question, have some doozies in their classic Understanding By Design: “To what extent do we need checks and balances on government power?” “In what ways does art reflect, as well as shape, culture?” (p. 115). Try to answer these questions seriously, right now. You’ll find that without a specific narrative to give them shape, they become meaningless. Under what circumstances are we making a judgment about the need for limited government? Art reflects culture in lots of different ways in different times and places — which art in which time and place are we asking about? And why do we care about either question anyway? Give us a specific story to bring these questions to life, and all of a sudden they feel vital. “Should Trump be impeached?” “How and why did Lutherans use printed illustrations to spread their ideas?”

The solution to these two problems is straightforward, but requires some courage. First of all, don’t be afraid to claim your content. Assuming someone has made a good decision about what historical stories to tell (you might be the one making those decisions yourself), Big Ideas will be embedded in the stories. Your students can’t grapple with those ideas until they know the stories that bring them to life. There’s nothing wrong with teaching students the facts of history, so long as we don’t stop there. Math teachers are not embarrassed to teach the multiplication tables, because knowing the multiplication tables  is a prerequisite to thinking effectively about more advanced mathematical questions and concepts. Our discipline is the same: stories are our multiplication tables. There’s no need to dress up your story with the costume of an “essential question.” Once your kids know what happened, they’ll have plenty of important and engaging questions to deal with as they wonder about what the key people in the story were thinking, why the story happened when and where it did, and what they think about all of it.

Second, make your essential questions specific to your story. The 4QM typology of questions is a guide to writing strong and engaging questions that come directly from your story. Last week one of our twitter followers took issue with Gary’s dismissal of essential questions and wrote to suggest some of his own: “An EQ should usually be rooted in the discipline, so: What caused the Great Divergence? Who is most to blame for WWI? Were Germans Ordinary Men and women or Hitler’s Willing Executioners?” I replied that his questions were excellent, and easily categorized using the Four Question Method: they are a Q3, a Q4, and a Q2. They’re also good because each one grows out of a specific story. We could rewrite them in the typical generalized essential question style, and then they’d become lifeless and dull: “What causes some societies to advance while others stagnate? Is someone always to blame for war? Can ordinary people do evil?” 

So we’re all in favor of giving students engaging, important, “essential” questions. We just think that you can do that consistently and effectively if you tell a story first and use the 4QM typology as a guide to what you want to ask next.