What is an Essential Question?
Each Investigation Module is framed by an Essential Question. Essential Questions structure the sustained investigation of content within each Inquiry Journeys unit, chunking information, scaffolding understanding, and supporting assessment.
Learning science has repeatedly confirmed that breaking complex information into manageable sections – or chunking – is one of the most effective ways to learn. This is even more important in inquiry, where learning is active and experiential, requiring more time for integration and reflection. Essential Questions accomplish this informational chunking, guiding students through a series of questions that help to organize content investigations. Teachers share these Essential Questions with students to connect them to the overall investigation and help them understand that complex investigations involve multiple questions. Essential Questions also help teachers assess student learning during the inquiry. If students can respond to a question with meaningful findings, they are ready to move forward with the investigation.
The example below presents the Inquiry Question and Essential Questions from a 5th grade unit on the American Revolution. Notice how the Inquiry Question frames the entire unit and the Essential Questions move students through the sustained investigation of content.
- How can we promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all?
During this unit, students explore events that led the Americans to declare independence, key factors that led to victory in the Revolutionary War, the diversity of revolutionary contributors and contributions, and the complex process of forming a new government.
- What sparks a revolution?
Students examine the events leading up to the American Revolution, the circumstances that triggered them, and reactions from different perspectives.
- What contributes to success?
Students make predictions about the factors that lead to victory in a sporting event, then examine the course of the American Revolution to analyze the roles of allies, resources, knowledge and expertise, leadership, and powerful messaging.
- What makes someone a revolutionary?
Students learn about four John Trumbull paintings in the Capitol Rotunda, depicting pivotal moments in the Revolutionary War era. They are challenged to investigate well-known and lesser-known individuals and groups to determine how well the existing paintings represent the contributions of revolutionaries.
- How can we promote the ideals of the revolution?
Students investigate the early days of the new nation to draw conclusions about what people had to do in order to establish a functional government. They examine changes to governing documents and events connected to them against the ideals of the American Revolution.