From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 10|No 5|February|2001

From Trivial Pursuit
to Essential Questions
and Standards-Based

by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

Sometimes we ask students to pursue answers to questions that are not worthy of much effort or attention.

"How many gargoyles are there on the Cathedral of Notre Dame?"

Who really cares?

The eleventh grade student sent me an e-mail message. "Can you help me?"

The teacher had a set of extra credit questions. Tough questions. But why would anyone need to know how many gargoyles perch upon the ramparts of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris?

The question was my teachers idea. he always asks a bunch of extra credit questions....example, the little holes in your shoes that your shoe laces go through is what. that was one of our questions last week. it gives a fun swing to Advance Vocabulary. he gave us this one bout the gargoyles a month ago and he said that he had given that one for over 10 years and that no one in any of his classes has EVER found the answer. i am gonna take him some of these e-mails and show them to him tomorrow durin class. he says he will not get on the comp to look b/c he thinks that "the Computer is the portal to hell' pretty funny. well... maybe we can find it sooner or later.

(name withheld)

An exhaustive search led to little illumination . . .

Hi and thanks for your informations !

We are still waiting and looking for new elements. We were also told by Mr. Fonquernie's assistant that the number of gargoyles is not same than when the Cathedral Notre-Dame was built : some broke, there were destructions, some gargoyles were added later ...

A certain number of gargoyles are not apparent (we do not yet know if
they all will appear on the architect's plans) ...

We will be very pleased to be included in your article although we are sorry we could not help you more !

Your question definitely passioned us ;-)

Thanks and best regards
Office de Tourisme et des Congres de Paris
Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau
127, avenue des Champs Elysees
75008 Paris
Tel : 33 (0) 8 36 68 31 12 (2,23 FFR/min)
Fax : 33 (0) 1 49 52 53 00
E-mail :
Internet :
Minitel :
3615 OTPARIS (2,23 FFR/min)
3617 OTPARIS (2,23 FFR/min)

There are so many more important and more intriguing questions we could explore about gargoyles. When we limit students to trivial pursuit, we make a mockery of authentic research and deprive them of a chance to explore the tough issues, choices, dilemmas and questions that really matter.

  • Why did people place gargoyles on cathedrals?
  • What good are gargoyles?
  • How are gargoyles (gargouilles) and chimeras (chimeres) different and which are better?
  • Why do some people place gargoyles in their gardens?

    For an excellent list of information about gargoyles on the Web, visit Gargoyles and Cathedrals: An Internet Hotlist on Gargoyles ( created by Diane Adams - Marshall Middle School - Janesville,WI.

  • Why does this cat sit with the gargoyle?
  • Why does the gargoyle sit with the cat?
  • Why do some people place gargoyles on their desks?
  • Why do some people place gargoyles on their office buildings?
  • What kinds of people like gargoyles? Why?
  • Are some gargoyles better than others?
  • What are the traits or characteristics of a good gargoyles? Should they be fierce and threatening? Kind, gentle and welcoming?
  • How should modern gargoyles be different from the ancient ones? Why?
  • Which of the gargoyles below would make the best one for your house or garden? Why? Click on an image to see larger version.

Gargoyle 1

Gargoyle 2

Gargoyle 3

Gargoyle 4

Gargoyle 5

  • Do we still need gargoyles? Why?
  • Will we always need gargoyles? Why?
  • How do other cultures like Bali islanders and Hindus make use of figures carved in wood or stone?
  • In what ways are such figures or gargoyles like icons?
  • How do icons influence the quality of life and our culture? Are they healthy? Unhealthy?
  • Why do some celebrities become icons? Are some celebrities like gargoyles?

Some call such questions essential questions because they call upon our best thinking and touch upon those matters that define what it means to be human. They are questions that help us to make meaning out of the events and circumstances of our lives.

There is a huge difference between knowledge on the one hand and understanding or insight on the other hand.

Schools often engage students in collecting answers, in accumulating information. But essential questions require that students spend time pondering the meaning and importance of information.

Essential questions are questions that resonate within our hearts and our souls. They are central to our lives. Most important thought during our lives will center on such essential questions.

If we were to draw a cluster diagram of the Questioning Toolkit (see FNO, January, 2000), essential questions would be at the center of all the other types of questions. All the other questions and questioning skills serve the purpose of "casting light upon" or illuminating essential questions.

Most essential questions are interdisciplinary in nature. They cut across the lines created by schools and scholars to mark the terrain of departments and disciplines.

Essential questions probe the deepest issues confronting us . . . complex and baffling matters which elude simple answers: Life - Death - Marriage - Identity - Purpose - Betrayal - Honor - Integrity - Courage - Temptation - Faith - Leadership - Addiction - Invention - Inspiration.

The greatest novels, the greatest plays, the greatest songs and the greatest paintings all explore essential questions in some manner.

Essential questions are at the heart of a search for Truth.

Many of us believe that schools should devote more time to essential questions and less time to trivial pursuit.

One major reform effort, the Coalition of Essential Schools, has made Essential Questions a keystone of its learning strategy. (Visit the Coalition Web site).

Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, ASCD, 1998) makes the exploration of such questions the primary focus of unit development.

As was outlined fully in this month's companion article, "Skirting the Education Dot Bomb," schools will see the best returns on investment when they engage students as infotectives. If schools expect them to employ the kind of thinking that Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew would employ to solve a mystery, they stand a good chance of improving performance on state tests. They develop the ability to interpret, analyze and infer. Students spend their time transforming information into meaning . . .

  • Finding meaning
  • Creating meaning
  • Extending meaning
  • Reading between the lines
  • Working with clues
  • Building theories

In contrast, when schools engage students in trivial pursuit or investigations that involve more entertainment than rigor and substance, they waste their time and risk inspiring the (warranted) resistance of staff members who already have too little time to address the demanding curriculum standards of this decade.

For more on essential questions read this other selection.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.
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