There's a huge chasm between the idea that students will be "provided with complex, authentic opportunities to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess" and the nuts-and-bolts of the program itself.
Wiggins' idea of developing a few essential questions resonates with me, but watch a room of teachers wrestling with essential questions is like watching a priest pry open a condom. We're uncomfortable, we're not quite sure if we're doing it right, and at any rate, we have no real intention of using them anyway.
I suspect one reason so many people have trouble developing essential questions is because so many of us, in our fast and furious lives, fear examining why our lives matter. We cover curriculum as well as we can, grumbling along the way about "these kids," and look forward to summer.
Wiggins does a (mostly) admirable job chunking down essential questions, but in his valiant (and profitable) effort to make essential questions more palatable for the classroom, he offers a third definition that ultimately wrecks UbD (though makes for better sales):
There is a third important connotation for the term “essential” that refers to what is needed for learning core content.
I suspect that if Wiggins had not given us a place to hide, his program would not have the roaring success (for him, anyway) that it has had.
For many of us, though, it's become just another template.
|Memento Mori, "To This Favour," William Harnett, 1879|
So what would be the essential questions of our profession?
I'll toss a few out there....
What, in the end, do you want your students to learn?
This question drives curriculum committees, but is is a bad question, particularly for science classes. It reduces the child to a receptacle ready to be filled with knowledge.
We can no more answer this question than we can live our children's lives.
Before we delve into what should we measure, we need to be explicitly clear about what matters. This is not a conversation that happens much in public schools, for a variety of reasons, but it's a conversation we need to resume if we hope to reclaim some
What conversations we would have, a maelstrom of morality and mortality, passionate discussions of the sort that got the Pilgrims tossed to Plymouth, ideas worth fighting (and dying) for....
Most of what happens in school would be washed away if we explored what truly matters, but I bet it would be a happier place.
...and how do we get there?
This is the crux of education, and the essential question of our profession, if we choose to become a profession.
So long as we're mere agents of a curriculum developed by "professionals" who have never lived in our towns, who do not (and cannot) know our children beyond their purchasing power, we will have little say in "how do we get there."