Critical Thinking

The Value of Essential Questions in ELA and Social Studies

Middle school teachers can weave essential questions through course units to help students connect prior knowledge with new content.

January 10, 2024
Malte Mueller / Getty Images

The essential question. The BIG question. As a middle school social studies teacher, I loved weaving the EQ in and out of the unit, challenging the class to reconsider, reevaluate, and rethink a familiar question in response to new learning. The essential question is not just a blank to fill in on the lesson plan template. On the contrary, a good EQ can spark curiosity in the classroom. Here are some ways to ignite class discussion by honing your use of the essential question.

Find the right question

The most common misuse of the EQ I tend to see is asking a question with a specific, clear-cut answer, such as, “Why did the American colonies declare independence from Great Britain” or “Why do the animals in Animal Farm rebel against Mr. Jones?” Getting the most out of an inquiry you can return to throughout a unit means the question should be philosophical and debatable, with no real answer. What matters here is that students grapple with the material, think critically, choose a side, and provide an explanation—at first by using prior knowledge, but then by continually returning to the question, referencing the content of the unit.

Power and equality are big ideas ripe for big questions in both social studies and English language arts (ELA). For instance, throughout the American Revolution, there are multiple opportunities to explore how the founders of this nation sought to create an equal society while grappling with the delegation of power in government. In Animal Farm, Orwell uses satire to explore these same ideas by scrutinizing the human desire for power and the ability of power to corrupt and create inequality. Here is where you can begin to explore how to craft the best version of a big question that students can explore throughout the unit as they interact and wrestle with new content.

Embrace the divide

A typical EQ may quite simply ask, “What is the relationship between equality and power?” Now, perhaps you’ve been taught that essential questions have to be open-ended, as this question is. However, I actually love the questions that compel students to straightforwardly choose a side. Although children may provide a one-word choice as an answer, the explanation is always an open-ended response. In my experience, some better EQs may ask the following:

• Is it possible to have equality in society when someone has to be in charge?

• Does a society that gives ruling power to a person or group of people make equality impossible?

• Is inequality inevitable as long as the power to make decisions rests with only one person or group of people?

Questions like these are perfect for my favorite kind of classroom discussion: argument and debate. With this in mind, embrace the questions that tend to divide the room. Perhaps the best part of using the EQ that splits the class is watching the teams change as the students engage in new learning.

Weave the EQ through the unit

Once you have identified a strong EQ, it’s important to think about how to cyclically use the question at some key points of the lesson. The big question is a great way to begin a unit prior to introducing new material. For instance, an EQ about inequality can provide context for students to examine the mounting frustrations experienced by colonists leading to the American Revolution or for an eighth-grade language arts class to analyze why the animals of Manor Farm want a better life. Likewise, these discussions afford opportunities to make connections between students’ prior knowledge and new learning.   

As the class engages with an ongoing unit, the EQ should be strategically reintroduced. Learners will inevitably make contact with new information that causes them to rethink their initial understanding of the EQ. As teachers, finding the sweet spots—those places in the unit where these interactions are more likely—and planning accordingly is essential for getting the most out of a big question. 

For instance, in U.S. history, as students appraise the words and actions of founders who go through painstaking efforts to ratify a constitution that protects the freedom of some while declaring others to be three-fifths of a person, come back to the question, “Does a society that gives ruling power to a person or group of people make equality impossible?” 

In ELA, on the heels of unpacking and exploring the divide between Snowball and Napoleon in Animal Farm, come back to the question, “Is inequality inevitable as long as the power to make decisions rests with only one person or group of people?”

I recommend two different ways to cycle through this practice:

Get students moving: If you are using a question that divides the classroom, it’s great to get students out of their seats to physically choose sides: “OK, everyone who thinks equality is achievable? Over here. Everyone who thinks equality is impossible as long as only some people are in charge? Over here.”

As you tease out student explanations and facilitate class discussion, track who stands where and why. Sometimes, the students who are the most vocal at first are the same students who swap sides by mid-unit. Additionally, exploring why and how the change in thinking occurred can generate cognitive electricity in the classroom.

Written reflection: While both methods allow for the facilitation of questioning and discussion, a writing prompt allows you to walk the room and scan responses for the warm call. Written responses also give you a record of the students’ initial thinking based on prior knowledge. Perhaps more important, each student can then track themselves and how their thinking changes over time.

In order to use this technique, you simply need to collect responses and store them until mid-unit. I like for students to be able to see their initial responses to the question, reflect on the big question given new understandings, and respond with what they’ve noticed about how their opinions have changed and why.

Although the big question does not drive every lesson of the unit, when it is used with intention and skill, a good EQ will most certainly make a difference in the curiosity and engagement levels of the class.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • English Language Arts
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School

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