Wiggins and McTighe refer to this as an ‘essential question’. They describe an essential question as one that creates inquiry, fosters deep thought, encourages justification and exploration of alternative viewpoints, stimulates rethinking of big ideas, sparks meaningful connections, and naturally recurs in other situations (Wiggins et al. 2005).
Essential questions are a helpful tool for planning as they offer a framework for exploring big ideas, building connections between content and context, and developing a socially critical learning environment (Malone, 2011, pp. 290).
Understanding by design
This is another concept taken from the ‘essential question’ or ‘Understanding by Design’ framework that Malone (2011) writes about. This framework is scaffolded by six facets of understanding: explain, interpret, apply, have perspective, empathise, have self-knowledge. Students explore the first three facets whilst creating their own artwork in the first three lessons. Then in the second three lessons, during the group project and excursion, they develop perspective, empathy and self-knowledge.
Vygotsky was a social constructivist, believing that learners would participate in meaningful learning when engaging with content actively, intentionally, authentically, cooperatively and collaboratively (Howland, Jonassen & Marra, 2012). Activities that support the pedagogical implementation of constructivism include project-based assessments and the essential question approach to lesson planning. Essential questions are those which create a space for students to explore big ideas, whilst developing a socially critical learning environment (Malone, 2011, pp. 290).
Malone (2011) also advocates for the use of an ‘essential question’ when preparing a unit of work. In a Year 9 media class students could be asked to work in groups to answer the following:
“How could you use technology to strengthen multiculturalism and encourage cultural diversity in Australia?”
Students would then work collaboratively to brainstorm solutions and build working prototypes in an environment that mirrors a ‘start-up’ style digital technologies agency. Women who work in the industry may also be invited into the classroom to offer expertise, narratives of their experience and to act as role models for all students.