Essential Questions for Elementary Social Studies: Curriculum Reform
for Social Action


Connie Gavin, Andrea Libresco, and Paula Marron

The students are gathered in small clusters at discussion stations around the room. As guests enter, two students welcome them to this fifth grade’s “Visit Through Time Exhibit and Workshop.” Large colorful maps, Revolutionary War periodicals, Civil War newspapers, Native American pottery, current events scrapbooks—all student-made—line the walls and bulletin boards. There is a sense of excitement as parents, administrators, and students engage in discussions about history.

One student, displaying her group’s periodical from the Revolutionary War era, is animatedly discussing the Sons of Liberty: Were they lawmakers or lawbreakers? At another station, students are using maps, charts, and graphs to depict the steady flow of migration to and within the Western Hemisphere over centuries. Were the Europeans who came here first worthy of our admiration? At the Civil War station, two fifth graders display their group’s Civil War newspaper while a debate continues over whether or not Nat Turner made a difference in the lives of black Americans.

In a fourth grade classroom a mile away, the children are grappling with the concept of historical progress on Long Island. Evidence of the year’s study decorates the room. Child-produced maps and legends, journal entries written from an Arawak perspective, “The Colonial Times,” and Long Island murals are in abundance. The children are handed their learning portfolios and asked to respond to the daunting question: Has the history of New York been a history of progress? They begin by considering what makes living on Long Island unique, using a current newspaper to create webs showing the “Economy of Long Island” (see Figure 1).

The children recognize that frame of reference is a determining factor in this discussion: where you stand depends on where you sit. With markers and large charts in hand, they list some of the advantages and disadvantages of the economic development they have noted. It becomes evident that there are no easy answers to the question of what constitutes “progress,” but these fourth graders are willing to grapple with unanswered questions.


Piloting a New Social Studies Curriculum

These student-driven presentations and discussions were the culmination of a year-long pilot of a new elementary social studies curriculum within the Oceanside School District on Long Island. The district had actually begun its assessment of elementary social studies three years earlier, prompted by the fact that different schools in the district were teaching different curricula. Indeed, different teachers on the same grade level were teaching different curricula. The district was seeking congruence.

The first year of curricular reassessment began with fifteen self-selected teachers working on a paid committee that met throughout the year to discuss the K-6 social studies program. The early discussions were wide ranging and often heated, probably owing to the fact that this was the teachers’ first opportunity to come together for the sole purpose of examining the social studies program.

By the second year, the group had chosen as its focus Grant Wiggins’s concept of essential questions in the social studies.1 The group had decided on posing overarching, higher order questions that would engage students in critical thinking throughout the year. To develop these questions, the teachers had to ask: “Why do students need to know this?” “Why is this information, or this curriculum approach, important?” and “What’s the big picture?”

Teachers wanted the essential questions they developed to reflect an awareness of current world problems that students could identify, discuss, and debate in a creative and age appropriate manner. These problems required identification and discussion among teachers as well. Key words such as diversity, progress, peaceful coexistence, and economic disparity were used to initiate discussion. Small groups of teachers completed and discussed worksheets by adapting a Wiggins’s notion that “you don’t really understand diversity” unless you can:

In the summer of 1996, the teachers wrote the curriculum to be piloted in the coming 1996-97 school year. The curriculum-writing sessions were not without their differences of opinion. Teachers accustomed to spending three weeks on latitude and longitude were working with others who addressed the nuts and bolts of geography in the course of their curriculum rather than as a separate unit. Teachers who had never gotten beyond the Civil War in U.S. history were working with teachers who insisted on bringing the curriculum up to the present day by using current newspapers. Teachers who had previously spent almost half the year on Native Americans were working with teachers who sought to make that topic one unit among many, rather than the centerpiece of the curriculum.

The result of all this effort was a set of meaty and provocative essential questions and subquestions that typically did not have one right answer. From their conference presentations and subsequent conversations with parents and community members, it was clear that intelligent adults could disagree about the answers to these questions. It was also clear that the questions for one grade would lead logically into the questions for subsequent grades. The kindergarten question “Are we more alike or more different?” would become “Are cultures more similar or different?” in the third grade, and culminate in the sixth grade question “Can the peoples of the world live together in peace?”


Considering Progress on Long Island

Perspective implies more than one answer to a question. In his book What Is History?, E. H. Carr wrote, “It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.”2 What matters are the angles of vision. Essential questions are about traveling all the way around the mountain, seeing the whole picture, gathering all the necessary information, and becoming aware of the wide range of different perspectives.

From glaciers to Native Americans, explorers to colonists, the American Revolution to Long Island today, the fourth grade class at Oceanside School 5 investigated its units of social studies using this question: “Has the history of New York been a history of progress?” In order for these concrete learners to develop enough sophistication to explain their thinking, they needed to learn to make specific observations and to present them in detail using reasoning and debates. The facts were the basic tools that supported their ensuing discussions.

Throughout the year, the children grappled with a progression of subessential questions, for example, “Have Native American ways of life helped New York to progress?” As demonstrated by diagrams and written responses, a systematic growth in their thinking was evident. The children learned to present their ideas about progress accurately and using supporting data. The facts could come from the text, Encarta Encyclopedia, Internet connections to museums, newspapers, and trade books.

In the unit on exploration, extensive research and collaboration among students resulted in interesting and thoughtful written work. This included a dramatization of what might have been the Arawak’s perspective on Columbus’s landing, a series of journal entries on a ship’s log from the perspective of a sailor or a slave, a cartoon designed by the children to show a historical perspective, research into the exchange of goods and services among continents, and a report card for Christopher Columbus requiring comments. The students created classifications of their new knowledge using webs. They listed some of the contributions toward progress that they noted, such as the exchange of goods. They developed a list of “not so wonderfu#148; results, such as the exchange of peoples in the form of the early slave trade. Each child then wrote an essay that compared events over time and explained the significance of the exploration and conquest of the Americas.


Considering Progress in the Western Hemisphere

The essential question for the fifth grade was “Is the history of the Western Hemisphere a history of progress for all?” One discussion circle at Boardman Elementary School began with the presentation of a soccer ball obtained from the school gymnasium. The students were asked to pass the ball around and record their observations of it in their writer’s notebook. They began by writing that the ball was black and white and round. They also observed various markings—for example, that it was labeled Adidas and stamped “Made in Pakistan.” John noted that it had the word FIFA along with an unknown picture symbol. After quiet reflection, some students began to write “I wonder” questions: “I wonder who made this ball?” “What made these neat rows of stitches? A machine? A person?” and “What was her life like?” Raising and sharing these “I wonder” questions, a valuable asset in class discussions and investigations, caused the conversation to take on a different dimension. Suddenly, students were talking all at once, their excitement evident in waving hands and verbal debate.

Over the course of previous weeks, these students had read about and discussed the problem of child labor in parts of the world today. TIME for Kids (TFK), Long Island Newsday, and U.S. World Today were their main resources. Students had been shocked to discover that children as young as six years old were forced to work for long hours with little pay. Children from all parts of the world, including the United States, were depicted as being mistreated and undernourished. In TIME for Kids, a labeled photograph showed a young boy sewing a soccer ball in a hot, airless room in Pakistan.

Students now asked, Could this soccer ball have been made by a child? They searched for materials stored in their scrapbook folders for details that might help answer their question. Based on the facts in their possession, some determined that the soccer ball probably was not made by an underage child, since it had the Fédération International de Football Association (FIFA) label, and one source stated that FIFA only gave its stamp of approval if the working conditions were adequate and the human rights of individuals had not been violated. This conclusion proved short-lived as students posed another question: “How old is that ball and when did this article about FIFA appear?” It was determined that the ball was over two years old, whereas the article had only appeared within the past few months. Thus, the facts revealed at least the possibility that a child made the soccer ball.

A stunned silence followed until Anne, one of the more outspoken students, said, “This is not progress. This is injustice. What can we do to stop this?” Through their class discussion, the students’ understanding of the word “progress” was extending beyond the concrete, just as the existence of child labor now became a problem extending beyond the confines of a nondescript foreign place and into our classroom. To students, established injustices clearly did not signify progress; they were very real, and the students wanted to know what their recourse was as individuals within a society that prides itself on having a government dedicated to a human rights philosophy.

This was only the beginning. Students wrote letters to companies and government officials and entered essays in a contest addressing the problem. One student suggested a boycott of the companies known to violate the rights of these children. Another student was quick to disagree, exclaiming that this would only hurt innocent people if jobs were to be lost as a result. Still another said that ending child labor would not be easy. If these children were working to earn money to help feed themselves and their families, what would happen if this source of income were to be lost? Would they starve?

Students also expressed themselves through creative writing. In a letter to TIME for Kids, one student wrote:

Whose face is behind this ball?

Someone with no name

Someone with hurt hands

Someone with no food who has to stay in a hot room all day

No lunch or breaks like us

Making soccer balls for not even him or her

For someone else to buy and play with and have fun

Not knowing where it was made

As young as six years old

If the ball could only talk . . .

Using the essential question as a foundation, these students made use of their knowledge and intellectual skills to isolate a problem and demonstrate their ideas of how it could be addressed. Through understanding the concept of progress and evaluating its impact on all peoples of the world, the students themselves “progressed.” The path begun in the fourth grade with the study of their immediate surroundings now extended to a more global perspective. Students learned more about how to use their skills and advance their thinking processes through this spiraling process.

As of September 1997, all of the elementary teachers in the Oceanside School District were using the essential questions approach in teaching social studies. Although their colleagues’ enthusiasm had clearly rubbed off on them, the great majority of these teachers did not serve on the committee or go through the three-year process of developing and piloting the new curriculum. Because teachers new to the district, and many new to this approach, needed additional help, the district created a 2/5 position of lead teacher for elementary social studies. Many districts have had specialists in math, science, and reading for years. Oceanside has now made this commitment in social studies.

The two elementary classrooms described earlier continued to develop using multiple approaches to understanding the concept of progress. These teachers chose to cross curricula with an investigation into environmental concerns. In the fourth grade classroom, children studied the effects of progress on the water quality on Long Island. Through the design and creation of ecosystem tanks, the children considered the effects of their community’s development on its aquifer and water treatment systems. Children in the fifth grade classroom studied the connections between soil depletion and world food supplies, and designed a hydroponic garden where they cultivated plants in water containing nutrients rather than in soil.

One of the reasons we study social studies is to derive lessons to guide us in the future. Surely, we should expect no less from a case study in social studies curricular reform. The Oceanside experience reveals that such reform requires a commitment in time and money. More importantly, using essential questions requires a willingness on the part of teachers to avoid “coverage” and replace it with what Wiggins calls “uncoverage”—whereby students explore different perspectives and generate multiple answers to problems.

History is messy. So is curricular reform. But the challenge of helping the students, the faculty, and the community of Oceanside to become comfortable with more than one angle of vision has been worth it.



1. Grant Wiggins, C.L.A.S.S. Conference on Rubric Construction (Princeton, N.J.: The Center on Learning, Assessment and School Structure, 1996).

2. Edward Hallett Carr, What Is History? (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964).


About the Authors

Connie Gavin teaches grade five at Boardman Elementary School in the Oceanside Public School District, Long Island, N.Y.
Andrea S. Libresco, lead teacher for elementary social studies in the Oceanside District, also teaches global and American history at Oceanside High School and social studies methods at Hofstra University.
Paula Marron teaches grade four at Oceanside School 5 in the Oceanside District.