IDP Blog 4: Variation on a Theme – Embracing the Essential Question

Today’s topic: Variation on a Theme – Embracing the Essential Question

I experienced my first interpretive training in 1983, shortly after I became a permanent interpreter at Mammoth Cave National Park. The “Interpretive Skills” training curriculum of that era (which preceded the IDP) emphasized the need for an organized and outlined program, based on an interpretive theme statement. Learning how to write a proper theme statement was very satisfying to my Type A personality – and supported the process we learned about program construction and delivery:

  1. Tell them what you’re gonna tell them (state your theme)
  2. Tell them (provide content that supports your theme)
  3. Tell them what you told them (summarize and restate your theme)

A couple of years later, when I began to supervise, train and coach seasonal interpreters, I strongly encouraged thematic interpretation as the gold standard. I encouraged new interpreters to emulate experienced colleagues who could spin an amazing story around a powerful and creative theme, presenting programs that held visitors in rapt attention and usually led to applause at the end. These programs focused on the thoughts and content selected and organized by the interpreter, and “presented” to the audience as passive consumers.

As part of the shift towards meanings-based interpretation that the Interpretive Development Program (IDP) began to popularize in 1996, theme statements anchored by a universal concept helped move the needle toward audience relevance. The core standard for all interpretive products to help visitors form “their own intellectual and emotional connections to resource meanings” helped us begin to prioritize audience needs and interests. But programs still revolved around the “relevant idea” that expressed the interpreter’s voice and perspective on a topic. I came to Mather Training Center at the beginning of this shift, and the last twenty years of my career have been devoted to training interpreters in these principles and standards of the IDP (see reference to Tradition and Transition below).

Thankfully (I am truly and deeply thankful), I am part of a profession that yearns to improve – and is capable of recognizing the need to continuously grow and evolve. So I am thrilled that we can learn from our colleagues in the education realm, and adapt a really smart strategy to focus our interpretive programs and media products around an inquiry-based approach using “essential questions.” Essential questions “engage learners in thoughtful ‘meaning making’ to help them develop and deepen their understanding of important ideas and processes.” (McTighe and Wiggins, 2012)

Developing an interpretive product around an overarching, open-ended essential question, rather than a theme statement, creates the space for co-discovery with your audience, inviting their contribution of content and co-creation of meanings, rather than a one-way, didactic presentation. A good essential question is broad with possibility for collaborative learning — it allows you to facilitate the experience in response to audience interests using supporting dialogic questions, techniques and pertinent site content. Essential questions also make it possible to connect your site’s stories to bigger ideas and issues that are important to society and personally meaningful to visitors’ lives. Thus, essential questions help us convey the evolving relevance of these places that leads to grasping the importance of their preservation (rather than the other way around – the assumption that we’re preserving them, therefore they must be relevant).

Freeman Tilden said “The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation” (his Principle #4). Essential questions are all about provocation! I used to be a card-carrying member of the “theme police” (every interpretive product needed a well-written theme statement). Now I’m a total protégé of essential questions because I think they can really help us break open whole new possibilities for provocation, exploring meanings, and collaborative learning. Here are some resources you can explore on your own to learn about and see some examples of essential questions.


Essential Theme Questions – The Big, Juicy So-Whats; Audience Centered Experience Interpretation Workbook, NPS Interpretive Development Program, 2017

Tradition and Transition: A Guide to Evolving Foundations Terminology, Stephanie Kyriazis and Cynthia Langguth, 2017 (see section on Themes)

What Is an Essential Question? Grant Wiggins, AuthenticEducation.org, Nov 15, 2007 (slow to download, but provides a good summary worth waiting for)

Video: Grant and Jay on Essential Questions, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, kineticvideo.com, 2014

Essential Questions, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Scholastic.net, 2017

Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden, 1957 (see Chapter 5 – Not Instruction But Provocation)

Write a Review

  1. Rating:

  2. This is a great reflection! I used to think that essential questions were only necessary in those longer, heavier, full-arc-type ACE program. But this is making me think about the value of having an essential question even for even the more basic, short talk that only has some ACE elements. Thanks!


  3. I remember being told as a new interpreter that themes are ALWAYS statements and can NEVER be questions. What was it about a question that made such a “bad theme?” Perhaps it is the mentality that as interpreters we should be the authority on everything, thus leaving the visitor with the answer to the question instead of leaving them with the question to ponder and explore. The new challenge is helping interpreters feel comfortable with not having to provide a black and white answer to everything we talk about. Often, with tough topics, there is no one answer.


  4. I’ve reached the point where I try to ask theme/essential in every program (whether I do it well is another question). One thing I have discovered — many of our programs are in places not necessarily conducive to dialogue (outside on city sidewalks with amplified music, buskers, traffic and other tour groups all around, for example), but using theme questions and asking visitors to consider them and consider their connections to present lives (questions such as, Where in your lives do you feel you a say? How would you respond to having that taken away from you? How far would you be willing to go to make yourself heard? How far is it right to go?) opens up the tour to more engagement and meaning making on the part of the group, even if they don’t respond openly during the tour. So, I find people saying afterward not the old “very informative”, but “I like the way you made us think about these things.” The challenge for me, especially as a former preacher, is how to keep and deepen that approach, and let any rhetorical skill, etc, carry the question rather than overwhelm it. I do have to admit, it was a great experience today asking the Attorney General of Israel about how he experienced the tension between “That which is not just is not law and that which is not law ought not to be obeyed” and “All good citizens should resolve to maintain the supremacy of the law,” both statements coming out of my resource. So keep on with it folks. Good questions change everything in every space and type of program, whether it can accommodate a full arc of dialogue or is an urban guided tour, or is a brief informal conversation. Thanks to folk at Mather for pushing us all in this direction.

  5. Great argument, Becky for moving the needle toward audience centered experiences. More and more, I see the value of creating space for the visitors to share their experiences. I see the essential question as turniing a theme statement into a question that is asked in a way that has benefit for all society. Personally, i have started writing essential questions that include universal concepts in a way that appeal to a broad spectrum of visitors. Thanks for sharing, Becky. I hope you are enjoying retirement.


  6. Great job Becky!

    Another excellent source for building Essential Questions is to go to your state’s Department of Education websites.

    1. Go to your state education website.
    2. Identify the topic you are trying to build your program on.
    3. On the state education portal, go to the subject area (U.S. History, biology, arts, English, etc.) you will be covering. You may end up being able to scaffold and use more than one subject to develop and present your essential knowledge question.

    3. You will want to identify the age group or groups you are trying to target with your presentation.

    4. Once you have identified your subject, theme, grade level, it is time to find an essential question to link to your program.

    5. Go to your state education website and go through and copy and paste all essential knowledge questions that relate to your theme (Civil War) and place them on a Word Document for later.

    6. Once you have all essential knowledge questions on your new Word document, go through and highlight the ones that inspire your imagination and be linked to your story and the park resources.

    7. Next, take those essential standards and build them into your story using different delivery methods (kinesthetic/tactile, auditory, visual) to make your presentation engaging and audience-centered.

    The benefit of using the state department of education standards of learning is that it allows you to connect the park’s resources and your stories directly to the classrooms for distance learning opportunities.

    Here is a link to the Virginia essential knowledge questions for Social Studies Grade 4 on the American Civil War:

    Essential Question Standards identified in 10 minutes by using the site include:

    GRADE 4
    Civil War and Postwar Eras
    VS.7 The student will demonstrate an understanding of the issues that divided our nation and led to the Civil War by
    a) explaining the major events and the differences between northern and southern states that divided Virginians and led to secession, war, and the creation of West Virginia;
    b) describing Virginia’s role in the war, including identifying major battles that took place in Virginia; and
    c) describing the roles of American Indians, whites, enslaved African Americans, and free African Americans.

    VS.8 The student will demonstrate an understanding of the reconstruction of Virginia following the Civil War by
    a) identifying the effects of Reconstruction on life in Virginia;
    b) identifying the effects of segregation and “Jim Crow” on life in Virginia for American Indians, whites, and African Americans; and
    c) describing the importance of railroads, new industries, and the growth of cities to Virginia’s economic development.


Arrow pointing upwards. Click this icon to go back to the top of the page.