This can be a huge leap, especially in social studies, because of traditions that regularly take over a teacher's approach to social studies instruction. Sadly, social studies still seems to driven by reading non-fiction text and completing activities that provide a break from learning more facts and masses of information. In contrast, students should be:
- taking time to apply critical thinking skills to analyze and gather the big ideas from multiple sources (charts, graphs, images, maps, primary sources, secondary sources, and visual media),
- asking additional questions due to interaction with sources (even if those questions are not answered),
- using newly learned ideas to engage in discipline-specific critical thinking and reasoning (Look at what students should be able to do. This is discipline-specific thinking/work and allows students to engage in the thinking practices and skills of historians, geographers, economists, and engaged/informed citizens), and
- using newly learned ideas to connect with the big ideas and essential questions (essential questions are designed with students as the audience, and they're designed so students uncover conceptual understandings)
- Is the teacher the only one who keeps referring to the essential question? Or, do students continually refer to the essential question, indicating that they know it's a tool central to their learning?
- Does the teacher primarily use an essential question so students can point out "answers"? Or, does the teacher use an essential question so students can use what they've learned and also pose additional ideas beyond what they are learning? (Students owning the question is central to a guided release model.)
- Is the essential question central to assessment?
- Is there a plan whereby the question goes from the teacher's control to the students' control?
(Access a blank version of this template to use in planning)
- "A GOOD essential question:
- is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, meant to spark discussion and debate.
- calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, and prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
- points towards important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across disciplines).
- raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
- requires support and justification, not just an answer.
- recurs over time (i.e. the question can and should be re-visited again and again)."