Essential Theme Questions

Essential Theme Questions — The Big Juicy “So-Whats”

An essential theme question is a key building block of an audience-centered experience.

In the past, interpreters were taught to write a theme statement as the guiding focus for an interpretive product. However, stating the theme as an overarching, open-ended question creates the space for co-discovery with your audience through opportunities for contribution of content and co-creation of meanings, rather than a prescribed or didactic presentation.

A good essential theme question is broad with the possibility for collaborative learning — it allows you to facilitate the experience in response to audience interests using dialogic questions, techniques and content.

An essential theme question:

  • Is intriguing, complex, and problematic
  • Is rooted in the issues and problems facing society today
  • Serves as a catalyst for critical thinking and compelling discussion
  • Cannot be easily solved or answered
  • Expresses broad social relevance
  • Provides a springboard from which to raise more questions
  • Addresses a real-world dilemma which your site uniquely speaks to
  • Open-ended and open to exploration

Some examples of possible essential theme questions:

  • What responsibility does society have to protect the environment?
  • What are the limits of freedom in a democracy?
  • How should a culture measure the value of land?
  • When is violence just?
  • What is the balance between preservation and progress?
  • Who deserves the right to access limited natural resources?
  • Who has the right to define “justice”?
  • How do we move forward in a polarized society?

Learn more about essential questions in this blog post — Variation on a Theme–Embracing the Essential Question

Looking For More on Audience Centered Experiences?

Audience Centered Experience Button - Two Pictogram Visitors talking to a pictogram rangerYou can find much more self-guided learning and all of the materials for making yourself an ACE in the Audience Centered Experience Interpretation workbook.

Interpretive Leadership button - a pictogram ranger leading a group of other rangers higherYou can find links to seasonal lesson plans which support this emerging skill set in the Audience Centered Experience Trainers’ Guide.

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  4. This is very useful. I appreciate that it is brief enough to be able to reference quickly when discussing essential questions with somebody, but specific enough to make it easy to measure your own EQ against the qualities described.


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