Academic journal article Social Education

Challenging History: Essential Questions in the Social Studies Classroom

Academic journal article Social Education

Challenging History: Essential Questions in the Social Studies Classroom

Article excerpt

Something was missing in Mike Paredes's classroom. A history teacher at an urban high school in Southern California, Mike had a good handle on content and a strong relationship with his students. But he worried that his students were not learning enough. After observing him teach several lessons, I understood Mike's concern. The classroom worked largely because of the strength of "Mr. P's" personality. His kids loved him and they willingly participated in a wide range of classroom activities. Mr. P. could explain the link between each activity and the larger themes of the time period being studied, but his students didn't see the connections, as assessments made clear. Students left the classroom with a limited understanding of the ideas and issues of history.

The experience in Mr. P's class is hardly unique. As a classroom teacher and teacher educator, I've observed dozens of similar classrooms, and research indicates that my observations mirror national trends. (1) Many history classrooms are led by well-intentioned, knowledgeable teachers who work hard to find and develop engaging activities that connect to the larger concepts of history. But, too often, these teachers are the ones doing all the thinking in the classroom. This dynamic needs to shift--teachers need to be facilitating student thinking.

One approach that my colleagues and I have found to be successful in supporting a move toward student ownership of historical understanding is the use of unit-framing, or essential questions. The concept of essential questions has recently received considerable attention thanks to the book Understanding by Design. (2) However, the approach remains underutilized. Drawing on educational research and classroom experience, this article makes a case for why such an approach is appropriate in the history/social science classroom and gives examples of its application.

What are Essential Questions?

1. Essential questions get to the heart of the discipline.

Essential questions address the big ideas of history and social studies. These are the questions "that pose dilemmas, subvert obvious or canonical 'truths' or force incongruities to our attention." (3) These are not end-of-the-chapter questions that can be answered in a sentence or two; rather, they address the contested concepts and dilemmas that historians and social scientists puzzle over in their work.

2. Essential questions have more than one reasonable answer.

Unlike the typical question that has a single correct answer, an essential question has many possible answers, and discussing it often leads to even more questions. These questions are provocative and multi-layered, requiring students and teachers to view the content from multiple perspectives. Essential questions can be re-visited often and are most powerful when they encourage us to form, not just a single response, but multiple carefully nuanced responses.

3. Essential questions connect the past to the present.

We study history, in part, because the dilemmas and concerns faced by our predecessors are often similar to those we face today. (4) Unfortunately, many of our students do not see these connections. Essential questions provide an opportunity to show the link between the past and the present, because they are not tied specifically to a given time or place. They address perennial concerns to which each generation must respond anew:

Should there be limits on personal freedom?

When is violence justified?

Who should have access to the American dream?

Do we have a responsibility to help others?

Are the benefits of progress worth the costs?

Can we have both liberty and security? Is it better to work together or alone?

Why are Essential Questions Appropriate in the History Classroom?

1. Essential questions enable students to construct their own understanding of the past. …

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