Essential Questions (5)

Essential questions starting point to develop curricula. Curriculum and courses should be organized not around answers but around big ideas—questions and problems to which content represents answers. Essential questions on every level—from the most encompassing schoolwide questions to the specific question posed in a particular unit of a particular course—should shape the way students learn to think critically for themselves. Consequently, essential questions are related to the school’s goals: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge (see Habits of Mind and Heart).

Benchmark Descriptors

Transforming: Student and adult work reflect depth and higher-order thinking prompted by essential questions.

  • Curricula are aligned around limited numbers of essential questions (across the school and the various disciplines, and in the classroom), so that student learning is focused and deep.
  • Student experiences and work are consistently connected to essential questions.
  • Essential questions are developmentally appropriate, and both relevant and authentic in scope, and they are integral to the enduring understandings of the content area. Essential questions are relevant to students’ lives and passions and ask students to connect the topic to experiences, observations, feelings, or situations significant in their lives. These include issues of social justice, race, culture, and community.
  • Students understand and develop essential questions for further independent exploration in the context of classwork and for summative evaluative projects.
  • Essential questions drive assessment methods. Students demonstrate mastery by having authentic, real-world impact on their environment. Assessment rubrics are designed to support their exploration.

Developing: Essential questions guide planning for course and are visible in classroom.

  • Students are aware of essential questions.
  • Students’ work is related to essential questions but not overwhelmed by them. (Too many essential questions cause students to lose focus during the inquiry process.)
  • Enduring understandings of content areas are tied loosely to essential questions, but assessment does not intentionally evaluate student understanding of the essential question.

Early: The importance of essential questions in directing learning has moved from leadership to the staff.

  • Staff development has occurred or been planned around using essential questions to develop student-centered curricula.
  • Teachers develop essential questions to guide planning of specific units or lessons.
  • Some essential questions are still too limited or too broad, and some have yes-or-no answers that do not allow for student exploration into topic. Some essential questions still encourage rote answers, and some assessments still measure content recall rather than content and concept understanding.


Humanities Curriculum Map Enclosed is a curriculum map of the 9th grade Humanities course. This is a joint map collaborated by two humanities teachers guiding the same cohort of students. Integrated Science Program At Federal Hocking High School all students take a two-year science core program. This program is not ability grouped, as none of our programs are tracked. All ninth and tenth grade students take the program, and it covers the state curriculum standards without just copying them as a course. The program is designed to be taught as an inquiry-based program. Junior Humanities Curriculum Overview This document illustrates the focus areas of depth vs breadth, the use of essential questions and rigor in a Humanities curriculum with a focus on European history and literature. Sample Curriculum Map Enclosed is a sample curriculum map for SOF’s 10th grade biology curriculum. The map is designed for a project based, heterogeneous classroom. Below is the course description: The 10th grade science curriculum looks at biology from a health standpoint: how do different systems function to maintain personal, community and environmental health simultaneously? Students will be expected to work with the scientific method to answer the essential question through lab experiments and community research projects. Special emphasis is placed on problem solving through the use of tools: case studies, existing theories, primary literature, web technology and databases. Major projects: the Health Resource Room, Human Reproduction Project, and the Disease Journal.

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Related Principles