Are Essential Questions Dumb? The Evolution of An ELA Whiteboard

Well, no, to give the short answer. Essential questions are terrific. That is, if you’re using them correctly.

Ten weeks into my third/fourth year of teaching 7th grade ELA, I’m finding the tiniest bit of breathing room to consider the instructional impact of seemingly trivial things like, say, what I write on my whiteboard. Enough to realize that I was so, so not using essential questions correctly.

Part of the reason for this is a push in my district to have clear classroom goals on the board at all times–  goals which are often used interchangeably with the phrase “essential questions.” Luckily, the presence of goals on the whiteboard have not become for us a checklist compliance measure on surprise administrative walkthroughs, as they have elsewhere. Right now they’re just marketed by my people, rightfully, as  “a good idea.”

Trouble is, classroom goals and essential questions are not the same thing.

You may have known this. I didn’t. In addition, I am the type of dreamy big thinker that underestimates stuff like the whiteboard, and relegates it to the bottom of my mental “to do” lists. So for a long time, the combination of these elements made it a Herculean accomplishment to just get something vaguely informational on the board before kids came streaming into class.

It took an actual solid read of Wiggins, the guru, on the topic (versus the viral warping of his concepts via word of mouth) for me to realize that what I was cramming into the “essential questions” box were not essential questions at all.  Here, for an example, is a true essential question:

What purpose do conflicts serve within fiction?

It’s huge, it’s deep, it ropes in all the skills and concepts you teach in relation to it, it requires critical thinking with evidential support.

Ironically,  in real life I am an essential questions geek– the kind of girl that can debate the purpose of conflicts in fiction for hours in a cafe while my tea goes cold. Making this overt alignment to essential questions has infused my classroom with a sense of purpose that goes missing sometimes. I wonder if we as teachers pay enough attention to that.

Instead, just like I found myself doing, perhaps we stick on the whiteboard– or in our lesson plans– things that are easily measurable or controlled within a class period:

How do you use key words on a dictionary page?

(This, by the way,  is a skill. An important one? You bet. An essential question? Nope.)

So I started thinking about this. I started thinking about the number of times kids came in and asked in true blindness, “What are we doing today?” (answer: sometimes.) I started thinking about the amount of times kids indicated that they didn’t feel an overt connecting rhythm in my classes (answer: too often). And I started mucking around.

This is how I usually do things. These are from the first unit of the year, an overview of the elements of fiction.

Goals 001

It’s ok– your basic bare bones agenda– but it’s all about the “what”.  I wondered if I could make the purpose of each activity clearer to the kids– the “why”.

Draft two:

Goals 002

Much better. The squiggle line and arrows live permanently on the board now.  You can still see me struggling with a few things, however. Reading Workshop is not a goal, but an activity; similarly the “what” is still dominating the “why”
on the goal side of the pre-assessment. I surprised myself by how many times I was still writing activities as goals. It’s harder than it looks to keep this distinction clear in your head.

I’m also not clear in this draft on what pronouns I should be using. This may seem like a ELA nitpick, but it isn’t– it’s about accurately, and therefore respectfully, reflecting the dynamic in the classroom. If I write, “We will read in our independent novels for 20 minutes” and then I drink some coffee and start individual conferences, I’m not doing anything wrong– but I’m not doing what I said I would be doing, either. Kids pick up on these contradictions, and the danger of them taking them as hypocrisy is high.

Third draft, and generally how I set up the board now:

Goals 005

So now I’ve got my pronouns straight, and my goals are really goals. There’s a mix on the goal side of procedural and declarative stuff, and that’s ok. But you’ll note that my board is too small, sadly, to get the essential questions on there.  Physical constraints strike again.

So you can’t see the questions  in the photo, but they get posted above or next to the board on huge sticky notes (magic to those of us with limited wall space and a need to easily move things around– run, don’t walk, and get some).

It takes a grand thirty seconds at the end of class to throw the essential question(s) out orally to the students and make the infrastructure of the unit, the connection between this lesson and what they’re learning overall, transparent to them. You can also make this a more formal learning experience, via Doug Lemov’s “Cold Call” or Robert Marzano’s note revising.

Or– stay with me now– ask the kids, after a bit of soaking in the unit, to construct and answer their own essential questions.

Good place to end. I’ve been talking schematics here, but after all, the essential question of all essential questions is a philosophical one. Who owns the question?

Which opens up the title of this post all over again, come to think of it.

12 thoughts on “Are Essential Questions Dumb? The Evolution of An ELA Whiteboard

  1. This is a great post. We are required to post the daily goal. I started out like you did, but I think the squiggly line that directly links the goal and the activities would be really useful.

    I just need to figure out how to fit 5 different classes! 🙂 I will try this out on Monday.

    If I find time this weekend I’ll check out your link to Wiggins.

    Thanks for the idea!

  2. It seems to me that the left side is still activities. You have “activity=>name of activity”, not “goal=>activity” for 1 and 3.

    Incidentally, “conference” is not a verb, and though you can verb any noun in English, it isn’t a good idea to do so when there are already good verbs available. Use “confer with me” or “listen to me complain” depending on whether they’ll be talking or just listening. (I’ve never had a good grasp on what it means when “conference” is used as a verb.)

  3. Thanks, EdThoughts! About ten seconds after I put this up I wondered about teachers who needed to catalog this material for 4+ preps/classes, something I don’t need to worry about this year with our new schedule. Powerpoint slides? Smaller writing? Race to the board and make changes before the next class? There are no elegant solutions, but maybe someone out there can suggest something for you that would work.

    I can see your point, GS. I’d love to see your suggestions for revising. Take the poetry, for example. My goal, in September, was not to do anything beyond reading and discussing a poem respectfully, because we needed procedural practice (#1) and declarative knowledge (#2) before I had kids start applying one to the other, at which point my goals would change.

    I found this blog post on “conferencing.”

    I myself have always tended toward the descriptive camp of English versus the prescriptive, so “verbing” doesn’t bother me terribly. There’s also the “picking your battles” argument here: I’m safe betting that every 7th grade kid knows what a “conference” is, versus “conferring.”

  4. Having been “classically trained” in the UbD model, it has always struck me as incongruent to the state’s standards; I enjoy and appreciate both; however, many very qualified educators/administrators do not understand the nuances. I appreciate this post very much – your level of reflection and analysis is invaluable.

  5. I’ve never been sold on writing an agenda on the board, but seing how you link agenda to purpose inspired me. I’ve been trying this for about a week and I’m happy with the results.

    I agree lesson goals are not usually essential questions which by design should be broader than a single lesson. However, this doesn’t mean they can’t be questions. My struggle with listing the goals is not giving up the ship before the students get a chance to figure it out. I think making the goal a question may be just as good if not betten than an explicit goal depending on the lesson.

    I’ve also taken to heart the advice of gasstationwithoutpumps to avoid “activity=>name of activity”, in favor of “goal=>activity” which is an easy mistake to make. Thanks to both of y’all.

    Since I’m too lazy/busy (mostly lazy) to write this stuff out every period, I made a keynote/powerpoint slide for that purpose. If anyone wants to steal it and tweak it, grab it from

  6. @Dina- Before I wrote all of my goals on one side of my board and labeled for each period. They were there, but I think that having everything listed caused a can’t see the trees for the forest type of moment for the students. They didn’t have a very clear area for that period to focus on. I had written everything at once so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day because it was already on the board.

    Because I like this question–> activity link so much I find it to be much more important to my lesson, so I just write the Question and the Activity for each period. It’s another thing to do, but from student response and focus on the essential questions and seeing the relevance of the activities, the extra step is worth it.

    I have added a “Planner” column so students know what to write in their planners (this is a carry over from the previous design). So my board has a Question–>Activity<–Planner look to it.

    Again, thanks for the post. My practice has been influenced.

  7. G’day Dina, I’m a primary school teacher here in Adelaide, Australia and I found this post interesting to contrast against what we are implementing in our classrooms here. It is nice to see how someone like yourself is dealing with the issues surrounding having the students being clear about the intent and focus of their learning at hand and I thought you might find a couple of links to be of interest with their concepts running parallel to your approach. We use an approach called Assessment For Learning (with inquiry learning and UbD thrown into the mix for good measure) which advocates the use of “Learning Intentions” combined with “Success Criteria”. The learning intention is not the big picture essential question but a very specific goal and the success criteria are what the student is looking for to stay on track. Anyway, the link is more useful than this comment –
    – the ideas may help you clarify whether your approach is where you want it, especially if you follow the link down to check out some examples of effective learning intentions.

  8. Hello Graham— I’ve been following you since ’07 through “Teaching Generation Z”– so nice to have you stop by.

    Part of the impetus to revisit this part of my management is that my school is pushing something called KUDs, which is quite similar (the same?) as what I’ve seen on a brief troll through the site you recommended. Neat stuff there. Question: Is Assessment for Learning a for-profit corporation, or a branch of Australian Government? I’m interested in the connections there. Do you feel it’s a successful approach in your classroom/for your district?

  9. Hi Dina,
    I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t responded back to you here for over a month. The truth is that while I can point at this resource and recognise elements of your approach in the main concepts of Assessment For Learning, I am still trying to come to grips how I actually implement it all in my own classroom. Assessment For Learning is put together by the Curriculum Corporation, a company owned by the Federal Government so not strictly for-profit – it’s now being swallowed by a merger with to become the boringly named Education Services Australia. I’m not sure how widespread the program is or whether only “progressive minded” schools are picking up on the value of being more explicit with students about learning expectations. One student at my school at my school described Learning Intentions and Success Criteria as “letting the kids in on the secret of what we need to be successful” – sounds corny but true! I’ve got to consciously embed more of it into my practice and that’s what drew me into your post – the fact that you have this focus on the purpose of the learning embedded as part of your practice.
    Hope this all makes sense – and excuse the tardiness – and I’ll blame the Aussie summer school holidays as well.

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