Essential Questions (Big Picture Questions)

Most of us are assigned some fragment of curriculum to teach with far too little time to cover it adequately. It's the nature of public education, perhaps even a necessary evil. I'm not sure what a class would look like that claimed in a fluid whole to cover all of known history, everywhere in the world, since we first wiggled forth from the primordial ooze. 

The textbook would be huge - even without ancillaries. 

Big Book

We should take intentional time, however, to step back from the specifics of whatever we're covering and make sure we're connecting those specifics to parts of a 'bigger picture'. Done regularly and well, this does several things:

House of Cards(1) It makes history more meaningful and provides context, connecting various subjects under the 'Social Studies' umbrella all the way through today. Think of your favorite episodic TV show ('24', 'House of Cards', 'Game of Thrones', etc.)  Any given episode may have individual meaning and value, but that meaning and value increase dramatically if you understand the overall story arch.  

(2) It makes content 'stickier' by giving it a place in an overall theme. Most information is much harder to retain in fragments; we can recall gigabytes of crap if it's part of a story, a larger idea, or an album we loved in the 1970's. 

(3) It helps students see Cause & Effect, Change Over Time, and all those other 'Big Picture' relationships. Here I'm referring to something more specific than in the first point. For example, the desire to reform or improve society is recurring in American History. The Progressive Movement has things in common with the Age of Reform in the 1820's and 1830's, but also traits which were different. In some ways it led to the New Deal, in other ways FDR was dealing with very different problems. 

Elder Scrolls IIEven a general awareness of these connections and relationships makes the specifics of each event richer and more meaningful. That in turn makes information easier to understand, recall, and apply. Any kid who’s played a ‘series’ of video games like HaloFalloutAssassin’s Creed, etc., can appreciate this connectivity.

Step back a bit further, and gamers easily recognize similarities and differences between these series as well. We’ve come a long way from Mario jumping on mushrooms, but there’s still almost always a ‘Big Boss’ at the end of each ‘story’ or ‘level’ who must be defeated to save whoever or whatever it is we’re saving this time. 

All rock’n’roll is the same but different, as are all buildings, all chain restaurants, or all game shows. It’s all about making the connections. 

So, ‘essential questions’… 

There is much written on this topic, and several rather involved and grandiose schema of exactly which questions are or should be 'Essential'. I'm not that fancy, so I'm going to share and briefly discuss the Five Big Questions I've used in class for years. It's up to you to choose them, adapt them, or replace them as you see fit. I've also shared my favorite article on the topic on the Classroom Resources version of this post.  

I keep these posted on all four walls and refer to them regularly throughout the year, whether we're in American History, American Government, or even the strange wonderland of Oklahoma History. My personal rule is that if I don't connect what we're discussing to one or more of the questions, students may ask at any time which of the Five are relevant to the topic at hand. If I can't respond and explain the connections without having to think about it, they don't have to do it or know it. 

But that's just me. 


This is one of the easiest to see in action - any time period, any topic, on any scale.

In any given family - who makes the decisions? If there's an effort to share that responsibility, who really makes the call when there's an impasse?

In any school - who's really running the place? Is it the building principal? The secretary? The math department? The teachers' union? The angriest parents? How much sway do each of them really have?

In any classroom - who's in charge, and how in charge are they? How much power should classroom teachers have? How much should they exercise, and in what circumstances? Which less-obvious sources of power and influence are in play in some classrooms, and how can you tell?

Early American History - who's in charge, the Colonies or England? The Federalists or the Anti-Federalists? The States or the Central Government? The Executive, the Legislative, or the Judicial - and in what mixture?

The Civil War was all about this question. Eventually it became a world issue.

In the 21st century we're still arguing over the powers of the President vs. Congress vs. the Courts. How much power should money give you? Fame? Family name? Your religion? When is a crime or a conflict a local matter? A state issue? Time for the federal govenrnment to step in?


When Jefferson first wrote that "all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," it was widely assumed that "all men" actually meant "all wealthy, educated, white, actually born-as-males-and-still-males men."

Over time, that definition has evolved to include those who aren't so wealthy or aren't so educated. After the Civil War, they no longer had to be white - although the rights on paper came much sooner than the realities in practice. Eventually they no longer had to be men - "all men" was read to mean "all of mankind." 

Most of the historical examples of this question in action are obvious - slavery, women's rights, the Civil Rights movement, A.I.M., Japanese-American Internment Camps, etc.

But we're still trying to figure out today who "all men" are. Many don't believe that "all men" created by that Creator with a big 'C' deserve unalienable rights - although if Jefferson was correct, that may not be up to us. (The real question might be whether or not we're regularly violating rights they unalienably have but we refuse to acknowledge - ironic, right?)

Are undocumented immigrants "all men"? To which rights should they be entitled? If we educate their kids, what are the pros and cons? What if we don't? If we provide emergency medical care or basic health services, what are the results, good and bad? What are the results if we don't?

Do black people deserve due process even if they've committed some sort of crime? Should white athletes with SO much potential be held to the same legal standards as people who can't swim as fast?

What about same sex marriage? What about Muslims - are they "all men" endowed by their Creator with certain "unalienable rights"?

What about people who aren't American citizens at all? Should it be OK to torture or hold without trial as long as we do it off-shore? Perhaps Jefferson meant "all men within a certain latitude and longitude"?

This one's HUGE. We've argued about it a great deal and fought about it more than almost any other issue. 


Americans have always had a sense of purpose or calling, something beyond a paycheck and clean water to which they aspire. But what is it, and how has it changed?

Is it about a set of ideals by which men should live - a chance to prove that a government founded on the proposition that all men are created equal can, in fact, long endure?

Is it about land and opportunity? Westward expansion? 40 Acres and a Mule?

Is it about freedom or other basic protections? Access to health care, education, or personal safety?

Is it about power? Fame? Wealth? Notoriety? Striking oil? Winning the lottery?

Maybe just a little 3-bedroom house with a dog and a white picket fence? Love? Netflix? Being the first to own the iPhone13? 

Is the guy who jumps up and down behind the local reporter and waves his arms claiming his little slice of the American Dream? The people who try out on American Idol or other 'talent competitions'? Or is it being lived out by everyone able to walk into a pretentious little coffee shop and order a $10 cup of something hot they can't pronounce, changing at least one of the ingredients as they order just to prove they can? 

This one matters because we pass a lot of laws claiming to promote the 'American Dream', and we devote a great deal of personal time and energy into pursuing it. Both might be more productive if we could first figure out exactly what it is


This was an issue from the beginning. There were a number of irritants leading to the American Revolution, but the Proclamation of 1763 - "Don't you dare go past those mountains!" - was certainly among the most important.

What about Manifest Destiny? Indian Removal? War with Mexico?

What about Imperialism? Walking softly but carrying a big stick? The Monroe Doctrine or the Roosevelt Corollary?

What about Isolationism, WWI, WWII?

What about the Cold War, and fighting communism in Korea, then Vietnam? 

What about the 'War in Terror'? How much should we be involved in the Middle East or anywhere else, fighting who and for what purposes?

How far should we go to recreate other cultures and other governments in our own image, or else?


This is one of the easiest for my kids to grasp when we're talking literal freedom and physical security. I respectfully sugggest, however, that in reality this one is just as important socially, and economically, as it is militarily or legally. 

If you have a cat or a dog, you have to decide whether to keep it safe or give it some freedom. Inside, it's less likely to get weird diseases or get hit by a car. Outside, though, it's able to do the kinds of stuff cats and dogs actually like to do. Even inside the house they're not completely safe - not telling what sorts of trouble they'll get into when you're not home. The safest place for them is a small kennel, placed in the tub, inside a central bathroom with the door closed, 24/7. There is a small trade-off in terms of their happiness, however. 

Most of my kids' parents are trying to find this balance with their little darlings - how much freedom do they give their student to decide when or how to do homework? How to handle a problem at school? Do they have curfews? Bedtimes? Do you try to limit who their friends are? How long can they go without calling? Helicopter too much, and your kid grows up useless and either afraid or confrontational; give them too much leeway, and they might fail a class or fall in the wrong crowd. You don't want to tell them who to fall in love with, but you're also hoping to prevent pre-marital spawning if at all possible - probably because of your outdated and oppressive morals. 

The safest place for them is a small kennel, placed in the tub, inside a central bathroom with the door closed, 24/7. You'll want something to muffle sound so your neighbors don't call the police, however. 

Teachers wrestle with similar concerns, although along a narrower spectrum - to what extent do I let students choose what to read? Whether or not to do homework? When to turn stuff in? Too much guidance, and we kill any joy in learning; too little, and there's no learning to begin with. 

We see it easily throughout American History:

The Articles of Confederation - lots of state and local freedom / insufficient national security or coherence to hold the nation together.

The Alien & Sedition Acts - largely a political maneuver, but still asking valid questions about how far free speech and acceptance of "foreigners" should go if national security appears at risk. We're still asking this one. 

Martial Law during the Civil War. Free speech during the ‘Red Scare’ and various War Protests. And pretty much everything related to Edward Snowden and the so-called "War on Terror."

Because if the feds can't turn on your daughter's laptop camera while she's changing without a warrant and without her knowing, the terrorists have won. 

But it's equally difficult when we talk social issues. The Scarlet Letter condemned society's judgmentalism over adultery, but does it benefit society to promote loose sexual morals? Can we both discourage single motherhood and support single mothers? Can we accomodate poor choices and bad behavior without encouraging more of the same?

There are pros and cons to sexual freedom, to legalizing drugs, to letting people eat, smoke, or drink whatever they want. Rare is the situation in which your choices simply will not impact me in the least, however personal they may be.

If I'm standing in the middle of your neighborhood street naked, pleasuring myself, I can SAY you simply shouldn't look if you don't like it - and I'm truly NOT hurting you or anyone else - but you could still argue that you have some right to inflict your uptight outdated morality on me for reasons beyond physical or fiscal harm. What I smoke or eat or drink shouldn't be up to you either, but if you're responsible for my health care or other public services, maybe you should have a voice. Domestic violence impacts all of us, as does how well you raise your child. Maybe people who wish to get married or reproduce should be required to seek community support first - after all, what they do will impact those around them dramatically for the next two decades at least, right?

It's complicated, and if reasonable balances can be found, they're still likely to change regularly based on societal norms and circumstances.

I'd love to know which Essential Questions you use or would consider for your class, and why. You're welcome to them if you like them, or you can modify them as you see fit. If you don't have ANY, however, I'd encourage you to think about trying to come up with some. After all, if there are no guiding themes for whatever you're teaching, why exactly are we bothering to begin with?