Getting back to essentials

I found this chapter in Wiggins very applied. Essential questions require the empathic facet and are applicable to the upper level of Bloom’s taxonomy (judging) where there are no right or wrong answers. They lead to big ideas and are built on challenging commonly-held beliefs or on posing dilemmas. The hallmarks of essential questions include:

  • recurrence
  • core idea
  • stimulate inquiry (and yet more questions)
  • appeal to diverse learners (offering alternate viewpoints)
  • force rethinking
  • require  connecting with personal and prior experience

I especially appreciated the recursive aspect inherent in the admonition that a question cannot be deemed essential without an examination of the content, assignments and assessments that surround the question.

The distinction between overarching and topical questions was equally useful as it showed how specific contexts (cases) in topical essential questions lead to overarching essential questions (which require specificity). The division of approaches–open versus guided–allowed the construction of a 4-cell matrix:

Open Topical Overarching
Guided Topical Overarching

I was somewhat surprised that that the following discussion didn’t suggest a sequence of Open->Topical to Open-Overarching to Guided->Topical to Guided->Overarching. That seems like a natural progression that moves from specifics to generalizations and from open inquiry to focused understanding.


Just like we’re supposed to design backwards, I thought I’d post backwards this week–and start with the textbook readings before the journal articles. Not sure if that’s a good method or not but it’s different than what I did last week and experimentation is fun. UbD was not as much fun this week–but mostly because the big section on state standards was boring to me. I KNOW it’s important but I don’t deal with it at all–although maybe I’ll have to in the future if the Higher Ed Coordinating Board starts to enforce their new College Readiness Standards. And one part of the standards part was sort of interesting: the argument on how big or small a standard should be sounds a lot like the arguments on how big or small a learning object should be. And the answer to both questions is still just as elusive and Zen-like: as big as it needs to be. Anyway, the idea of understanding based on essential questions based on skills made a lot of sense although I don’t see why Wiggins concentrates on the skills instead of performance goals (he says the latter are complex and long-term but I sort of thought we wanted to assess via performance).

I was hoping the section on big ideas would have more specifics–but then I suppose if it was easy (or formulaic) to come up with big ideas, they wouldn’t be big. I liked the concept that big ideas are “counterintuitive, prone to misunderstanding” because that ties back to the earlier discussion of uncovering misunderstandings as a first step in the instructional process. The chart seemed to suggest starting with everything you know about a topic–then narrowing it down to enabling skills–then narrowing that down to the big ideas and core (transfer) tasks, a process that makes a lot of sense. However, by the end of the chapter, I felt the authors had spent a lot of words and not said a lot.

On the other hand, Dick and Carey’s approach was succinct, moving from learner analysis to performance context (the environment in which the learning will be used) analysis to learning context (the environment in which the learning will be learned) analysis.The 8 concepts in learner analysis seemed a little redundant: it seemed to really be 5: Entry State (behavior and knowledge); Attitude (toward content, delivery and trainer); Motivation; Ability (potential); and Preferences. The 2 case studies were illustrative and while I think I’d shorten these in a real situation, I see the value in at least asking all of these questions.