One of the foundations for the design of the National Core Arts Standards is “Understanding by Design,” and foundational to that method of planning and delivering instruction is the use of essential questions. Essential questions are open-ended, though provoking questions that reveal important, transferrable ideas. Because they are open-ended, they must be supported with evidence, and in searching out that evidence, they lead to deeper understandings. Any question that has one correct answer cannot be an essential question. For example, “what process did you follow to compose your musical work?” is not an essential question, even though the process one student followed may be different from the one another student followed. For the student answering the question, there is only one answer–the process he or she followed. There is no need to collect evidence to support the evidence, anymore than one needs to provide evidence that they walked a certain line to go to the pencil sharpener and then return to their seat. Only one route was taken, so only one answer is possible to the question, “what route did you take to go to and from the pencil sharpener?”
The real power of essential questions comes when they draw a learner into a unit of study. Essential questions are effective in answering questions disengaged students are likely to ask at the outset of a class they have quickly judged will not interest them. For example, before beginning a unit on composing music, students might wonder why they must learn to compose music, because most of them do not plan on becoming composers or studying music composition in college. There are worthwhile essential questions waiting on the doorstep of this doubt. Why do composers create music? How does music communicate ideas and emotions? What influences the musical works a composer creates? Why does our culture place so much importance on music? What ideas or emotions of yours do you wish others understood? How could writing music help you be better understood by your friends?
As students discuss and probe these essential questions, they will realize that creating music is not something that is only of benefit to professional composers–that there are ways in which composing music improves the quality of life of people who simply use it as an outlet for personal expression. Working through these questions prepares students to create music with purpose and personal meaning. On the other hand, brushing aside students perceptions of composing as irrelevant to them only maintains barriers to both fulfillment and rich learning for the students.
Instruction driven by essential questions continues beyond these preliminary yet essential inquiries. Having learned why they will be creating music, they must next learn how composers and eventually they compose music. Once again, we could simply present them a list of musical elements and show them that composers use elements like tempo, rhythm, dynamics, and tonality to express ideas and emotions, or we could ask students to draw on their own musical experiences to observe how composers make the music mean what it does to them. How do creators of music use musical elements to convey meaning? What kinds of responsibilities does a creator of music have to an audience? What kinds of responsibilities does an audience have to a creator of music? How does a creator of music know when a musical work is ready to present to an audience? How do creators of music decide what they will express in a musical work? Use of these and similar essential questions keeps the learning grounded in what is of personal interest to individual students, and keeps the purpose of music composition, that is, to convey meaning through expressing ideas and emotions, at the forefront of the task. I have used composition as an example here, but essential questions work equally well with the other musical processes of performing, responding and connecting.
It is important to understand that using essential questions to drive instruction should not be seen as a way to disguise what the teacher wants students to do as if it were relevant to students. Essential questions should not trick them into doing what the teacher wants, but rather should help them uncover in what ways they can self-direct their learning to make it interesting and relevant for them.
Up to now, I have not mentioned one important aspect of instruction, and that is assessment. After all the deep thinking and performance tasks the students have done, they must demonstrate what they have learned, and what they can now do as a result of the instruction. Although this is the last step in the instructional cycle (if a cycle can be said to have a start and end point), it must be the first thing that is designed when planning the instructional unit. What will students do and what will they know as a result of the learning activities they will have done. Though using essential questions for this stage of instruction is perhaps not so self-evident as at other stages, their use has tremendous benefits. With the use of essential questions at the assessment stage, student feedback can be gathered and used give students the method of assessment that most accurately represents what they know and can do. For this, we can simply ask, “how do audiences evaluate musical works they hear?” “What are some ways that composers receive feedback about their musical works?” What are some things about music we can tell composers know by listening to their musical works?”
These questions teach students the dynamic assessment practices that are built into any musical performance situation. Once learning on this has taken place, we can ask a question that is not essential but is critical at this stage, and that is, “how would you like to show me what you can do and what you have learned from composing music?” The student can then design his or her own assessment plan with guidance form the teacher so that the stated objective of the unit is fulfilled. For example, if the student proposes only to tell the class about the work, then that is not acceptable because it doesn’t demonstrate the objective of, for example, composing a melody that uses musical elements to convey a stated meaning being met. Once assessment plans, the designing of which is part of the unit, are complete, students demonstrate their learning and the unit comes to a conclusion.
Essential questions bring the learning experience to a deeper level than just performing the learning task itself, and then being tested on learning. They also clarify what students should be focused on, and motivates them to stay engaged because so much of the learning activities are tailored to individual interests and knowledge. information on essential questions, In addition to the brief video below, for further information I recommend Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2008).
Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2008). Understanding by design. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.