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Essential Questions Tied to Standards

Wisconsin's Model Academic Standards for Social Studies (WMAS/SS)

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Adopted in 1998, the WMAS/SS are performance standards in five content clusters (geography, history, political science, economics, and the behavioral sciences). There are benchmarks at 4th, 8th, and 12th grades.

Feedback from educators would often point to the large number as well as the general language of the benchmark performance standards as unhelpful.  This confusion often led to issues in implementation of the WMAS/SS. To help focus instruction, essential questions tied to each content cluster are provided below.

A New Way to Look at Existing Standards

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WMAS/SS were reviewed to look for common themes, skills, and goals, and the performance standards were clustered into groups.  

After the clusters were determined, nationally normed essential questions (from NCSS and National Geographic) were used to entitle the sections. These were reviewed by social studies teachers around the state for clarity and feedback.  

Essential Questions for WMAS/SS

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The visual for the Essential Questions by Strand is color- and icon-coded.  Each strand has 3-4 essential questions that are tied completely to the WMAS/SS.  The essential questions are meant to work K-12 in any social studies course.  

The breakdown by strand and grade level

How have districts used this?

What is an Essential Question?

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Based off the work of Wiggins & McTighe, an essential question:

  • is one that probes for deeper meaning rather than basic understanding;
  • cannot be answered by "yes" or "no", or even just by one sentence;
  • offers critical connections between different areas of study; and
  • often helps to answer the question: "Why are we studying this?".

Essential questions can also help focus instruction.  With a goal for meeting standards (or standard clusters), it becomes easier and more manageable to determine what to teach.  

Essential questions are not just lesson objectives written in the form of a question.  They are not changed daily to focus individual lessons, and they're usually not questions that will be answered with one day, class, unit, etc.  They are long-term goals, and can be answered in different ways at different grade levels.  


For questions about this information, contact Kristen McDaniel (608) 266-2207