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Global History Thematic Essay Belief Systems Pbl

Many, Many Examples Of Essential Questions

by Terry Heick

Essential questions are, ask Grant Wiggins defines, ‘essential’ in the sense of signaling genuine, important and necessarily-ongoing inquiries.” These are grapple-worthy, substantive questions that not only require wrestling with, but are worth wrestling with–that could lead students to some critical insight in a 40/40/40-rule sense of the term.

I collected the following set of questions through the course of creating units of study, most of them from the Greece Central School District in New York. In revisiting them recently, I noticed that quite a few of them were closed/yes or no questions, so I went back and revised some of them, and added a few new ones, something I’ll try to do from time to time.

Or maybe I’ll make a separate page for them entirely. Or, who knows. Nonetheless, below are many, many examples of essential questions. Most are arts & humanities, but if this post proves useful, we can add some STEM inquiry to the mix as well. Let me know in the comments.

Many, Many Examples Of Essential Questions

Decisions, Actions, and Consequences

  1. What is the relationship between decisions and consequences?
  2. How do we know how to make good decisions?
  3. How can a person’s decisions and actions change his/her life?
  4. How do the decisions and actions of characters reveal their personalities?
  5. How do decisions, actions, and consequences vary depending on the different perspectives of the people involved?

Social Justice

  1. What is social justice?
  2. To what extent does power or the lack of power affect individuals?
  3. What is oppression and what are the root causes?
  4. How are prejudice and bias created? How do we overcome them?
  5. What are the responsibilities of the individual in regard to issues of social justice?
  6. How can literature serve as a vehicle for social change?
  7. When should an individual take a stand against what he/she believes to be an injustice? What are the most effective ways to do this?
  8. What are the factors that create an imbalance of power within a culture?
  9. What does power have to do with fairness and justice?
  10. When is it necessary to question the status quo? Who decides?
  11. What are the benefits and consequences of questioning / challenging social order?
  12. How do stereotypes influence how we look at and understand the world?
  13. What does it mean to be invisible? (context: minorities)
  14. In what ways can a minority keep their issues on the larger culture’s “radar screen?”
  15. What creates prejudice, and what can an individual overcome it?
  16. What are the causes and consequences of prejudice and injustice, and how does an individual’s response to them reveal his/her true character?
  17. What allows some individuals to take a stand against prejudice/oppression while others choose to participate in it?
  18. What are the causes and consequences of prejudice and how does an individual’s response to it reveal his/her morals, ethics, and values?

Culture: Values, Beliefs & Rituals

  1. How do individuals develop values and beliefs?
  2. What factors shape our values and beliefs?
  3. How do values and beliefs change over time?
  4. How does family play a role in shaping our values and beliefs?
  5. Why do we need beliefs and values?
  6. What happens when belief systems of societies and individuals come into conflict?
  7. When should an individual take a stand in opposition to an individual or larger group?
  8. When is it appropriate to challenge the beliefs or values of society?
  9. To what extent do belief systems shape and/or reflect culture and society?
  10. How are belief systems represented and reproduced through history, literature, art, and music?
  11. How do beliefs, ethics, or values influence different people’s behavior?
  12. How do individuals reconcile competing belief systems within a given society (e.g., moral beliefs conflicting with legal codes)?
  13. When a person’s individual choices are in direct conflict with his/her society, what are the consequences?
  14. What is morality and what are the factors that have an impact on the development of our morality?
  15. What role or purpose does religion / spirituality serve in a culture?
  16. What purpose or function do ethics / philosophy have in governing technological advances?
  17. How do our values and beliefs shape who we are as individuals and influence our behavior?

Adversity, Conflict, and Change 

  1. How does conflict lead to change?
  2. What problem-solving strategies can individuals use to manage conflict and change?
  3. How does an individual’s point of view affect the way they deal with conflict?
  4. What personal qualities have helped you to deal with conflict and change?
  5. How might if feel to live through a conflict that disrupts your way of life?
  6. How does conflict influence an individual’s decisions and actions?
  7. How are people transformed through their relationships with others?
  8. What is community and what are the individual’s responsibility to the community as well as the community’s responsibility to the individual?

Utopia and Dystopia

  1. How would we define a utopian society?
  2. How has the concept of utopia changed over time and/or across cultures or societies?
  3. What are the ideals (e.g., freedom, responsibility, justice, community, etc.) that should be honored in a utopian society?
  4. Why do people continue to pursue the concept of a utopian society?
  5. How do competing notions of what a utopian society should look like lead to conflict?
  6. What are the purposes and/or consequence of creating and/or maintaining a dystopian society?
  7. What is the relationship between differences and utopia?

Chaos and Order

  1. What is the importance of civilization and what factors support or destroy its fabric?
  2. What are the positive and negative aspects of both chaos and order?
  3. What are the responsibilities and consequences of this new world order described as “global”?
  4. What role does chaos play in the creative process?
  5. What are the politics and consequences of war, and how do these vary based on an individual or cultural perspective?

Constructing Identities

  1. How do we form and shape our identities?
  2. In a culture where we are bombarded with ideas and images of “what we should be,”
  3. How does one form an identity that remains true and authentic for her/himself?
  4. What turning points determine our individual pathways to adulthood?
  5. In a culture where we are bombarded with other people trying to define us, how do we make decisions for ourselves?


  1. What is creativity and what is its importance for the individual / the culture?
  2. What is art and its function in our lives?
  3. What are the limits, if any, of freedom of speech?

Freedom and Responsibility

  1. What is freedom?
  2. What is the relationship between freedom and responsibility?
  3. What are the essential liberties?
  4. What is the relationship between privacy, freedom, and security?
  5. When does government have the right to restrict the freedoms of people?
  6. When is the restriction of freedom a good thing?

Good and Evil in the World

  1. Is humankind inherently good or evil?
  2. Have the forces of good and evil changed over time and if so, how?
  3. How do different cultures shape the definitions of good and evil?

Heroes and “She-roes”

  1. Do the attributes of a hero remain the same over time?
  2. When does a positive personality trait become a tragic flaw?
  3. What is the role of a hero or “she-roe” (coined by Maya Angelou) in a culture?
  4. How do various cultures reward / recognize their heroes and “she-roes”?
  5. Why is it important for people and cultures to construct narratives about their experience?
  6. What is the relevance of studying multicultural texts?
  7. How does the media shape our view of the world and ourselves?
  8. In a culture where we are bombarded with other people trying to define us, how do we make decisions for ourselves?

The Human Condition / Spirit

  1. In the face of adversity, what causes some individuals to prevail while others fail?
  2. What is the meaning of life, and does that shape our beliefs regarding death?

Illusion vs. Reality

  1. What is reality and how is it constructed?
  2. What tools can the individual use to judge the difference, or draw a line between, illusion and reality?

Language & Literature

  1. How is our understanding of culture and society constructed through and by language?
  2. How can language be powerful?
  3. How can you use language to empower yourself?
  4. How is language used to manipulate us?
  5. In what ways are language and power inseparable?
  6. What is the relationship between thinking and language? How close or far are they apart?
  7. How does language influence the way we think, act, and perceive the world?
  8. How do authors use the resources of language to impact an audience?
  9. How is literature like life?
  10. What is literature supposed to do?
  11. What influences a writer to create?
  12. What is the purpose and function of art in our culture?
  13. How does literature reveal the values of a given culture or time period?
  14. How does the study of fiction and nonfiction texts help individuals construct their understanding of reality?
  15. In what ways are all narratives influenced by bias and perspective?
  16. Where does the meaning of a text reside? Within the text, within the reader, or in the transaction that occurs between them?
  17. What can a reader know about an author’s intentions based only on a reading of the text?
  18. What are enduring questions and conflicts that writers (and their cultures) grappled with hundreds of years ago and are still relevant today?
  19. How do we gauge the optimism or pessimism of a particular time period or particular group of writers?
  20. Why are there universal themes in literature–that is, themes that are of interest or concern to all cultures and societies?
  21. What are the characteristics or elements that cause a piece of literature to endure?
  22. What distinguishes a good read from great literature?
  23. Who decides the criteria for judging whether or not a book is any good?
  24. What is the purpose of: science fiction? satire? historical novels, etc.?

Love & Sacrifice

  1. If any, what are the boundaries of love and sacrifice, and where does one draw the line between them?
  2. What are the factors that move individuals / communities / nations to great sacrifice and what are the consequences?

Nature in the Balance

  1. What are the responsibilities of the individual / society / superpowers in regard to the health of the environment?  (local, regional, national or international context can be used)
  2. What are the consequences of being unconcerned with nature’s balance/harmony?

Our View of the World and Ourselves

  1. How do we know what we know?
  2. What is changeable within ourselves?
  3. How does what we know about the world shape the way we view ourselves?
  4. How do our personal experiences shape our view of others?
  5. What does it mean to be an insider or an outsider?
  6. What does it mean to “grow up”?
  7. Where do our definitions of good and evil come from?
  8. What is the relevance of studying multicultural texts?
  9. How does the media shape our view of the world and ourselves?
  10. In a culture where we are bombarded with other people trying to define us, how do we make decisions for ourselves?
  11. What turning points determine our individual pathways to adulthood?

Past, Present, and Future

  1. Why do we bother to study/examine the past, present or future?
  2. What are the recurrent motifs of history and in what ways have they changed or remained the same?

The Pursuit of Happiness

  1. What is happiness, and what is the degree of importance in one’s life?
  2. To what extent does a culture / society / subculture shape an individual’s understanding or concept of happiness?

Relationships and Community

  1. What are the elements that build a strong friendship?
  2. How do friendships change over time?
  3. What impact does family have during different stages of our lives?
  4. What can we learn from different generations?
  5. How is conflict an inevitable part of relationships?
  6. How do you know if a relationship is healthy or hurtful?
  7. What personal qualities help or hinder the formation of relationships?
  8. How are people transformed through their relationships with others?
  9. What is community and what are the individual’s responsibilities to the community as well as the community’s responsibilities to the individual?

Shades of Truth

  1. Who defines “truth”?
  2. How does perspective shape or alter truth?


My brain; Grant’s authenticeducaiton.org; L. Beltchenko 2007-2008 and the Greece Central School District, New York; Many, Many Examples Of Essential Questions

Lesson Planning Ideas: The World's Religions

Looking to liven up grade 6-12 social studies instruction or add a multicultural element to your class? Want to celebrate diversity by discussing holidays around the world, and not just in December?

Expand students' world views by helping them understand religions with which they might be less familiar. Offering kids a global take on religion lets them appreciate the perspectives of the many faith groups within, and outside of, the United States. In this way, kids develop the diversity skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century.

Click on the names of the religions in the table below to access mini-articles that provide more information on the religion, as well as the corresponding holiday that falls within a particular month. Faiths in the table include: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism and Baha'i.

The mini-articles offer a basic rundown of beliefs and practices, information about two holidays observed in the faith, and links to enrichment resources such as photographic images and relevant phrases in various languages.

Inside a mosque (Islamic house of worship)
in Damascus, Syria

Each month of the school year, try opening discussion on one or more religious observances that might be new to your students. The selection of faiths here is certainly not exhaustive; you will want to encourage students to identify and explore additional religious traditions not on the list.

Below the table, you'll find (1) general tips for discussing diverse religions in the classroom, (2) introductory information for students, and (3) discussion points and activities you can use to cover each religion.

Oshogatsu Shintoism
Rissun Shintoism
Naw-Ruz Baha'i
Tomb Sweeping Day Taoism
Hola Mohalla Sikhism
Chunga Choepa Buddhism
Rivdan Baha'i
Easter Christianity
Vaisakhi Day Sikhism
Dragon Boat Festival Taoism
Vesak Buddhism
Ramadan Islam
Ganesh Chaturthi Hinduism
Rosh HaShanah Judaism
Yom Kippur Judaism
Diwali Hinduism
Hajj Islam
Christmas Christianity

NOTE: The indicated timing is approximate for many of the holidays. Many observances are timed to lunar cycles that change from year to year. In addition, some observances begin in the month indicated but carry over to a subsequent month. If you prefer to teach about a holiday on its actual start date, you will need to research the specific date on a year-to-year basis.

Discussing Diverse Religions in the Classroom

Religion can be a complex and even contentious issue and therefore needs to be approached carefully in the classroom. The good news is that clear guidelines offer appropriate practices for public-school educators.

The Teaching About Religion site offers a helpful list of "do’s and don’ts" as well as concrete examples of what appropriate classroom instruction on world religions looks like. In general, educators will want to present a secular discussion that neither endorses nor denigrates any one religion. They will also want to make sure that the experience is comfortable for students of any faith, as well as those who do not have a religious affiliation.

As such, teachers will want to make sure they avoid:

  • Role-playing any sort of practice that can be considered a worship activity (i.e., holidays should be discussed rather than "celebrated").
  • Requiring or pressuring students to disclose or discuss their own religious beliefs (this includes singling out students who may represent a particular faith).
  • Allowing student discussion to go in the direction of proselytizing or judging peers.
  • Stereotyping adherents of various faiths or ignoring the diversity present within every faith.

Likewise, any outside speaker the educator may engage should be comfortable abiding by these guidelines.

Introductory Information for Students

What is a religion?

Begin by asking students to define the term "religion." Record students' responses on chart paper, or have them share their ideas verbally with the class. Alternately or additionally, you may wish to have students record their answers in a personal journal.

Compare their ideas to sociologist Emil Durkheim's classical definition:

"[Religion is] a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community."

The United Religions Initiative also offers a thorough definition of religion that's geared toward younger students.

Remember that students may tend to provide definitions that reflect the scope of their personal beliefs. Through discussion, ensure that you arrive at a definition that's inclusive enough to cover monotheistic, polytheistic and nontheistic religions.

If students have written their initial definition as a journal entry, after teaching about world religions, have them go back and determine whether they want to revise or expand their definitions.

What do we know about world religions?

Introduce the names of nine world religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism and Baha'i.

Ask students: Are any of these familiar? Have students use a journal or KWL chart to indicate what they know about these religions.

Try administering a pre-quiz to assess prior knowledge. One quiz might involve putting the nine faiths in order of their number of adherents worldwide. The correct answer, as indicated on adherents.com, is:

  1. Christianity: 2.1 billion
  2. Islam: 1.5 billion
  3. Hinduism: 900 million
  4. Chinese traditional religion (includes Taoism): 394 million
  5. Buddhism: 376 million
  6. Sikhism: 23 million
  7. Judaism: 14 million
  8. Baha'i: 7 million
  9. Shintoism: 4 million

Another quiz might involve matching a key concept or term with its corresponding religion. Here's an example (the term is followed by the answer in parentheses):

  • Torah (Judaism)
  • Muhammad (Islam)
  • Crucifixion (Christianity)
  • Kami (Shintoism)
  • Diwali (Hinduism)
  • Karma (Buddhism)
  • Amrit (Sikhism)
  • Chi (Taoism)
  • Naw-Ruz (Baha'i)

Define the terms monotheism, polytheism and nontheism. Students should remember these terms, as they will be used later to describe various faiths.

Have students identify particular faiths that are least familiar to them. What do they want to learn about them? Ask them to record answers in their journals or in the 'W" column of a KWL chart.

Discussion Points and Activities

Before you begin, remind students of any "ground rules" that will apply to discussions. Assure them that no one will have to share personal information or beliefs, and that discussion should explore each faith without positive or negative judgment.

Start by giving an overview of the distribution of religions worldwide. The site adherents.com rank-orders faiths in terms of the number of worldwide adherents for each. To put things in visual perspective, you may wish to present this screenshot of the site's world-religions pie chart:

How does the above global distribution of religions compare to that within the United States? To answer that question, try sharing the following screenshot from cia.gov:

Ask students: Do these pie charts show what you would have predicted? What was surprising? What was something new that you learned? How does the U.S. differ from the rest of the world? How is it similar?

Students may notice that Christianity is the largest faith both in the United States (79%) and worldwide (33%). And while the U.S. is more diverse than most countries in terms of the number of faiths it represents, in America the non-Christian faiths are present in much smaller percentages than they are elsewhere around the globe. For example, less than 1% of Americans are Muslims, compared to 21% worldwide. For more in-depth information on religions in America, see this Pew Forum report.

Next, present the information on each religion using the nine mini articles (links to these articles also appear in the "Religious Observances" table above):

For each religion, cover the following:

  • Origins of the faith (When was it founded? Was there an identifiable founder?) Find detailed information about the founding of various religions here.
  • Whether it is monotheistic, polytheistic or nontheistic
  • Where in the world most of the faith's adherents are located (the mini-articles have limited information on this; in addition, CIA.gov provides a breakdown by country, and Encyclopedia Britannica provides a breakdown by continent)
  • Major beliefs or emphases
  • Variations among followers of each religion (information on subgroups of each religion can be found here). You'll want to make the point that we need to be careful not to stereotype members of faith groups; religion is a public as well as a private affair.
  • Scriptures or holy texts/books
  • Key figures or individuals
  • Major values or rules for human behavior
  • Key holidays/holy days/religious observances
  • What is unique about the religion (relative to others in the list of nine)
  • What is similar about the religion (relative to others in the list of nine)

Ask students to take notes and use graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams or fact tables (see Example 1 and Example 2) to help them process the information.

To extend the lesson, try one of the following:

  1. Invite a class speaker who is a member of a faith that may be less familiar to students. Have students prepare questions for the speaker ahead of time. If an in-person visit is not possible, use online tools such as Chatzy.com, Skype or Google+ Hangouts to hold a virtual meeting.
  2. Individually or in groups, have students conduct further research and document their learning with a Web tool such as Diigo.com, a cloud-based platform that allows for collaborative research, highlighting/annotation, saving of images and more.


  • Ask students to go back to their journals or class chart paper to determine whether their definition of religion needs revision. Reflect upon what changed in terms of students' conceptions of religion.
  • Have kids fill in the 'L" (what I learned) column of a KWL chart or make a concluding journal entry that reflects knowledge gained about world religions.
  • Administer a post-quiz that involves (1) rank-ordering religions by number of worldwide adherents or (2) matching concepts with the corresponding religion. (See Introductory Information for Students section above for quiz answers.)
  • Ask students to create world-religion trivia quizzes and administer them to each other, or facilitate a "Jeopardy!"-style class competition.
  • Invite each student to share a new word, new practice/belief or new holiday/religious observance with which s/he was previously unfamiliar. What was the most interesting or surprising thing learned?
  • Have students plan to share additional information about one of the 18 covered holidays (or additional ones of their choice) at an appropriate future time during the school year. Consult the BBC's interfaith calendar for ideas. Students should select holidays with which they are not currently familiar. Suggestions for student sharing include: a PowerPoint presentation, poster, photo essay, paper scrapbook, set of online bookmarks, or transcript of an interview with a faith leader or person of a particular faith that is different from one's own.
  • Challenge students to practice delivering two- to three-minute "nutshell reports" (brief explanations of each religion for an audience that knows nothing about the faith).


Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
Education World®    
Copyright © 2013 Education World

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