16 February, 2010

Essential Questions for Foreign Language Learners

Essential Questions are lighthouses for people interested in learning. Many of us have been lulled, by vocationally-centered education and the need to compete in a tight job market, to thinking that asking ourselves deep, meaningful questions and finding their answers is not very useful to our personal or professional lives. Even people who like pursuing the larger questions in life do it as a personal project, by and large divorced from public life.
Teachers are no exception. Many teachers don't define more essential questions for their classes because of time constraints or because their goals for the students are often very practical and are usually defined by standardized exams, institutional standards or demands of the job market. Such "philosophical" pursuits are seen as extraneous to the objectives at hand - knowing important information and gaining key skills related to the field of study.

Posing essential questions, however, indicates an important shift in how education is conceived. Their purpose is to "connect and bring meaning to all the discrete facts and skills."1 In fact, Wiggins and McTighe contend that "deep and transferable understandings depend upon framing work around such questions." Enduring learning takes place when students are truly puzzled, by "genuine and relevant inquiry"2 into questions they feel the need to resolve not for a grade, rather because the questions are meaningful to them as human beings. An essential question is defined by the course designer then gradually owned by students who fervently pursue its answer.

Essential questions are easier to define in some academic areas than others. For example, in Art: "To what extent does art reflect culture or shape it?"; Science: "How precise must we be?"; Political Science: "Is a democracy that suspends freedoms a contradiction in terms?"; Math: "Are numbers real?"3 These questions can be more appropriate for specific levels of inquiry and although they are used as course foundations, they are not necessarily meant to be used throughout an entire curriculum.

However, working with English as a Foreign Language teachers on this issue has been challenging because they have been trained to think that there is nothing more essential than students learning to communicate in English. Thirty years of focusing the profession on communicative competence has made it the holy grail of all foreign language instruction.

Even if communicative competence is perceived as the most essential question, trained foreign language teachers lead students to explore complex and interesting issues beyond following a route on a map or making a purchase. An example would be asking students to make a TV or radio spot, a project that involves a variety of skills, knowledge and communicative competence in the language.

However, even such engaging activities lead thoughtful students (and teachers) to ask themselves: "Well, so what? What difference does that make? Who cares?" These students and teachers realize that "education is not just about learning 'the answer' or acquiring specific skills, but about learning how to learn" in a broad, meaningful sense.4 If a foreign language course designer wants to go beyond communicative competence to satisfy deeper desires for understanding in his/her students, what essential questions should be asked? Surely there are a variety of satisfactory essential questions that can guide foreign language instruction. I offer one such possible question here hoping that readers will suggest others.

Communicating effectively in a foreign language necessarily requires a certain level of awareness of the target culture so that verbal and body language can be as appropriate and comprehensible as possible. This is a complex task for English learners given that English is spoken in a variety of ways in multiple cultures throughout the world. For this reason, Dweik and Nuar state that textbooks should be evaluated with criteria "which take into consideration the intimate relationship between language and culture." (2005) Further, they state that textbooks should be designed to "bring global and home awareness" into student experience as this is "essential to increase students' multicultural experiences and strategies." (2005) The underlying assumption is that strategies used to communicate with other cultures require experiences with and awareness of that culture.

The Standards for Foreign Language Learning (2006) include Cultural, Connections and Comparisons standards relevant to this issue. These state that students should "gain knowledge and understanding of other cultures" and "develop insight into the nature of language and culture". This is accomplished by 

• "understanding ... the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied."
• acquiring "information and recogniz[ing] the distinctive viewpoints that are only available through the foreign language and its cultures.
• demonstrating "understanding of the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own."5

McKay (2002) takes this idea one step further, encouraging what she calls a "sphere of interculturality" as the key objective for cultural content in foreign language textbooks.6 In short, this means that the process of learning about another culture is more than transference of information between cultures because it "entails a reflection on one's own culture as well as the target culture."7 This means that learners use information acquired about the target culture to reflect on characteristics of their own culture that may have been previously unexplored and on contrasts produced through the reflective process. The goal of this reflection is to "recognize how particular pragmatic differences might affect their own cross-cultural encounters."8

However, even McKay's reflective process can fall short of an essential understanding - the logical outcome of an essential question - if its purpose is not to help students value and aim to live by aspects of the target culture that are healthier, and more mature than their own. Similarly, students should value and celebrate aspects of their own culture that are healthier and more mature than the target culture. For example, if there are aspects of a culture, either local or target, that are greener, more inclusive, more appreciative of diversity, more cooperative, more efficient, more just, honest and transparent, more interconnected and are greater expressions of unity, then students should be encouraged to value that aspect of the culture and reflect on how to either incorporate it into their lives or celebrate it if it comes from the local culture.
Within this context communicating in the target language becomes a vehicle to accomplish a more meaningful goal, and is no longer seen as the goal itself.

Supporting our students to constantly examine their values and decisions to connect them more harmoniously with these and other universal principles converts foreign language classes into an opportunity to work towards making student's inner and outer lives more coherent and meaningful. The greatly anticipated "cross-cultural encounter" mentioned by McKay then becomes filled with possible topics of conversation in which students can naturally stretch their language knowledge in order to gain a greater understanding of specific cultural traits of the people they meet. Appreciating such cross-cultural encounters for reasons beyond language learning could very well be one of the greatest accomplishments language teachers can achieve in their students.


1. Wiggins and McTighe, pg. 105 (emphasis added)
2. Wiggins and McTighe, pg. 110
3. Wiggins and McTighe, pg. 105, 112
4. Wiggins and McTighe, pg. 109
5. American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2006, pg. 4
6. McKay, pg. 83
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.


Dweik, Bader and Nuar, Nadia. A Manual for Evaluating the Cultural Content of EFL Textbooks, approx. 2005. Internet resource: http://www.atel-lb.org/conferences/elt/manul07/ManualEva.htm
McKay, Sandra Lee. Teaching English as an International Language, Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers, Oxford University Press, 2002.
Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design, 2nd edition. Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development, Alexandría, VA. 2005.