In this thought-provoking article in Principal Leadership, Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher (San Diego State University) and Heather Anderson (Health Science High School) draw a distinction between essential questions that are course-specific (for example, How do fractions, decimals, and percentages allow us to describe the world?) and schoolwide essential questions. Frey, Fisher, and Anderson describe how Anderson’s high school has used a set of schoolwide essential questions each year to provoke high-level discourse and improve student achievement. In developing its questions, the school used the definition developed by Grant
Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2013):
- Essential questions are worthy of inquiry, calling for higher-order thinking – analysis, inference, evaluation, and prediction.
- They are thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, sparking discussion and debate, giving students the tools and a forum to wrestle with important ideas.
- They are open-ended – that is, there isn’t a single, final, correct answer.
- They require support and justification, not just the answer.
- They produce a humbling acceptance that some matters are never truly settled, but at the same time a desire to think about such questions.
- They point toward important, transferable ideas within and across disciplines.
- They raise additional questions, spark further inquiry, and need to be revisited over time.
Each year the school collects possible questions, screens them using the Wiggins/McTighe criteria (plus one more – questions involve two or more academic disciplines), asks students to vote on them, and decides on the best sequence (one question for each academic quarter). Here are some of the school’s essential questions from recent years:
- What sustains us?
- If we can, should we?
- Does age matter?
- How do people approach their health?
- What is race, and does it matter?
- Can you buy your way to happiness?
- Who am I? Why do I matter?
- What is beauty and/or what is beautiful?
- Does gender matter?
- Who are your heroes and role models?
- What’s worth fighting or even dying for?
- What will you, or won’t you, do for love?
- What is normal, anyway?
- How does your world influence you?
- Is there a limit to tolerance?
- What makes you “you”?
- Which is worse, failing or never trying?
- You exist, but do you live?
- If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
- Are humans naturally good or evil?
- Is freedom ever free?
- Do looks matter?
Each year’s questions are displayed in public areas of the school and sent home to parents, and visitors are given the opportunity to comment in a response log. Teachers start the year by thinking about how to integrate the questions into their own course content and, if possible, make cross-disciplinary links. For example, a 2010-11 question about beauty led English teachers to have students read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Body Rituals Among the Nacirema by Horace Miner, “Ain’t I a Woman” by Sojourner Truth, and “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. A tenth-grade World History teacher addressed the issue through a study of philosophers of the Enlightenment, and a geometry teacher looked at the concept of the golden mean in architecture and design.
When the school first started using schoolwide questions, students were asked to write about them in a single discipline. “Over time, we began to understand that complex interdisciplinary thinking requires that students participate in discussion and debate before writing,” say Frey, Fisher, and Anderson. “Teachers now devote a portion of one class period each week to a Socratic circle on the question of the quarter.” The location of these discussions rotates among the four core academic classes so students think about the questions from every possible angle. Student responses can come in a variety of formats – formal research papers, Facebook postings, 3-D sculptures, animations, and more.
“Using Schoolwide Essential Questions to Drive Learning” by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Heather Anderson in Principal Leadership, February 2014 (Vol. 14, #6, p. 52-55), www.nassp.org; the authors can be reached at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.