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.


Do you understand the way I understand?

I didn’t find this chapter as useful as Gagne’s, not because I didn’t agree that there are different types of understanding but because it wasn’t as specific (but that might be good for me). So, I thought I’d translate what I understood Wiggins to say (in terms of the six facets) into how I might apply them:

  1. Explanation – accomplished via generalizations; not just telling because “why” and “how” are inferred; might be used as PBL to require students to explain not just recall answers; related to Bloom’s analysis and synthesis levels
  2. Interpretation – accomplished via telling stories; varies with context but students must defend positions; present students with inherently ambiguous issues
  3. Application- accomplished by requiring students to use in new situations; context-dependent; performance-based; seems identical to Bloom’s level
  4. Perspectives – accomplished by presenting the big picture; require students to take an alternate point of view
  5. Empathy – accomplished when students can identify value in other perspectives; seems to require an attitudinal assessment
  6. Self-knowledge – accomplished when students can perceive their own limits; achieved by using reflection; make certain students are not using binary answers; also seems to require an attitudinal assessment

All six facets are manifestations of transfer according to Wiggins, but I need to think how to prove that.