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Exploring Essential Questions with a Group of Objects

By: Tess Porter, Educational Technician, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

Trying to brainstorm your next Learning Lab collection, but not sure where to start? With a particular topic in mind, creating a large collection of objects and grounding them in a few guiding questions can be a great way to create a simple, investigative, multi-disciplinary, evidence-based, discussion-sparking collection for your students.

This method is flexible, can be used with a wide variety of topics, and works best in a collection containing 20–50 objects. In this post, I'll describe some basic guidelines for creating a collection using this method, as well as examples of collections that I and other educators have built to inspire your own.

In this method, collection resources serve as sources of evidence for students to use in building a response to the essential question. This method is flexible, and there is no one right way to build a collection using it. However, there are a few guidelines that will help:

  • Choose the right questions to guide your students' inquiry. There are two types of questions you'll use:

Essential questions are the focus of the activity. They involve enduring issues, concerns, or broad disciplinary themes. Students must construct arguments based on multiple sources of evidence—the objects in your collection—to answer them. These questions are often best approached through multiple disciplines.

Supporting questions
help guide your students' inquiry into the essential question. These questions ask students to investigate and analyze the significance of the collection objects both individually and as a group. Answering these questions will leave students with a new knowledge base from which to answer the essential question.

(For further information, see the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's (ASCD) guide What Makes a Question Essential? and page 24 of the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards.)

Most importantly, without these guiding questions, a collection could easily become the equivalent of a slideshow. These questions engage students in the topics, issues, and objects of your collection. Below are some examples of what these questions might look like and how they work together in an activity.

  • Be selective about which objects you include. Analyzing each object should add something new to your students' inquiry into the essential question. Curate, don't just aggregate; while the effective range of collection objects you can use in this activity is 20–50 objects, less is often more. Objects can be many things: portraits, artifacts, sculptures, letters, just to name a few! It all depends on the topic. Sometimes, videos, websites, and articles, are also worth including as an "object" for analysis.
  • Create small groups to address the activity. Discussing answers to questions and listening to peer perspectives and experiences leads to a deeper understanding of the topic and essential question at hand.

Tools & Innovation

The collection Tools & Innovation explores two essential questions using this method: What makes something innovative? How do you define innovation? To explore these questions, the collection includes types of tools from a wide array of cultures and time periods– everything from a MacBook Air, a Stick Navigation Chart, Spacesuit Gloves, to an Olduvai Chopper. These tools were chosen based on multiple themes to organize inquiry: communication, navigation, protection, hunting/cutting, and recording time. With such a variety of objects, inquiry into the big questions could be approached through multiple disciplines: history, anthropology, geography, and more.

To guide the development of a student inquiry, the supporting questions included: Who used these tools? Where was this tool created? Do you notice any connections between these tools? Would you be surprised to see someone use some of these tools today? Answering these questions leads to an understanding of what these objects are, as well as their significance.

Working with teachers, we found that using such a wide variety of objects encouraged a broader inquiry into the essential questions than if we had asked them to answer with no provided evidence. The objects provided a broad definition of what a "tool" could be. Additionally, looking at objects in a group, rather than individually, sparked new ideas of how innovation could be defined; often, objects like the Polynesian Star Chart or the Inka Quipu were chosen as most innovative, while objects like the MacBook Air ranked as the least. Teachers discussed: Is the most innovative object the newest iteration of a tool type, or is it the object that made the biggest impact at the time of its creation (even if that was thousands of years ago)?

Other examples of collections exploring essential questions through a group of objects:

  • Investigating a Place: Minnesota: investigates the meaning of place through a wide variety of objects and two essential questions: How do you define Minnesota as a place? What does it mean to be a Minnesotan? To guide student inquiry, supporting questions include: How do these objects relate to each other? What objects/people/places are missing that you think are important in defining Minnesota as a place?
  • Defining Portraiture: multiple examples of portraiture used to guide an inquiry into the essential question: How do you define Portraiture? Supporting questions include: Can a portrait be of a character vs. a real person? Does a portrait have to include a person's face? Does the sitter have to know the portrait is being created? What forms can a portrait take?
  • Innovations in Coffee Cup Lids: asks students to analyze differences in coffee cup lid designs to answer the essential question: How do changes in coffee cup lids reflect larger changes in our society? This collection includes an article that links the rise of the coffee cup lid to the beginnings of American "to-go" culture.

Now it's your turn – try creating your own! Some ideas to get you started:

  • What can a particular type of object reveal about the lives of the people who used or created them?
  • What did some of the earliest cultures choose to record in writing? What does this reveal about what was important to those ancient societies?
  • What types of inventions have people created to assist in navigation? What types of inventions were built for particular types of travel, and why?
  • What types of dangers do spacesuits need to combat? How are these dangers tackled, and have methods changed over time?

Primary Images:

Clovis PointNational Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Mariner's AstrolabeGift of the Barlow Family. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

Hansen Writing Ball (Commercial) Maker: Rasmus Malling-Hansen, Danish, 1835-1890. On deposit from Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict, Cat. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.