When designing units, teachers should frame learning goals in the form of essential questions to help students make connections and apply new knowledge to broader contexts. Wiggins & McTighe (2005) state, “The design must explicitly focus on the big ideas that connect and bring meaning to all the discrete facts and skills” (p. 105). One way to approach the design of essential questions is to keep them open-ended. This allows for higher-level thinking and inquiry. Students cannot simply respond with a yes or no and can’t just search for a single answer for the purpose of completing an assignment. Questions should be engaging and relevant to students. It’s also important that questions don’t just address a specific topic (topical) that fulfills the learning target for the lesson, but questions should also be general enough (overarching) so students can apply the standard across content areas (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
Topical and overarching questions should both be used when designing essential questions. Topical questions focus on the goal of the unit and overarching questions are general and apply to larger contexts. If only topical questions are used students are not able to make connections across units. If only overarching questions are used, class discussion may not have a direction and the lesson may lose its purpose. Matching both the topical and overarching questions “signals to the learner that the learning process has stages and rhythms whereby answers lead to other questions and new inquires suggests the need to revisit earlier answers” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 117). Although topical questions may have a definitive answer, understanding this content can lead students to make inferences to answer overarching questions.
The goal in creating questions is to use them as a frame that helps guide the learning activities and inquiry. Both teachers and students can revisit the questions throughout the lesson to determine if their new learning has led them to answers. Questions can help keep the lesson focused on answering the goals of the unit. Creating overarching questions before the lesson provides direction for the teacher to ensure that learning activities are aligned with the goals of the unit. It also helps teachers avoid teaching for coverage because students are not just searching for definitive answers but applying their new knowledge to understand big ideas.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J., (2005) Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.