What are Essential Questions?

©Leslie Owen Wilson, 2014

Essential Questions – A key part of the instructional design process 

Besides creating a vision of your learners, developing “essential questions” that direct your choices in content and processes are also an important component of quality teaching and learning. Comprehensive, well-crafted questions ground intellectual pursuits giving students some sense of direction, purpose, and relevance as they are engaged in the work of the subject. Good questions direct students to dig deeper into content and processes, and delve deeper into a subject or the content. More importantly they propel students to learn to ask their own questions. And within a subject they help focus content on the crucial and important parts of that subject.

Essential questions can also help teachers organize course content and direct their instructional choices about what to include and what to omit. Remember because it is the textbook may not mean it is essential to understanding the discipline. I give you permission to cull content, to think outside your text — you are after all in control of the content due to your professional interests, training, and accumulated expertise!!!

Jacobs (1997) notes that essential questions are often tools for creating clarity and precision and for communicating pivotal parts of ideas,  subjects or disciplines. As students problem solve, read, inquire, sift and sort related knowledge and skills, essential questions become end points, beacons to final destinations, and landmarks marking the way.

Another definition of essential question modified from Math Star NM is that these are: 

Questions that probe for deeper meaning and set the stage for further questioning, ones that foster the development of critical thinking skills and higher order capabilities such as problem-solving and understanding complex systems.”

In essence it is noted that “a good essential question is the principal component of designing inquiry-based learning. It is” essential questions that encourage collaboration among students, teachers, and the community and integrate technology to support the learning process. (sic)”  (Source: http://mc2.nmsu.edu/mathnm/exploration1/unit/content_questions.html)

Please note that essential questions are non-judgmental, open-ended, meaningful, purposeful. They have emotive force with an intellectual bite, and readily invite the exploration of ideas. These are questions that ask students to develop gauged and seasoned opinions, ones requiring decision making skills, or plans of attack, or courses of action. They are big questions; they are not little questions about factoids or facts that can be memorized easily. They are meant to be wrestled with, chewed on, pondered over, read and talked about, as answers to these types of questions frequently have no right or wrong answers. Often, these are questions that have either moral or ethical foundations the students will have to take a stand on and defend as they engage in constructing individual meaning.

Since part of the process in backwards course design hinges using essential questions to help create a viable course framework, McTighe and Wiggins (2013) wrote a book on the topic. Here are several samples they offer of the differences between essential and non-essential questions.

“Essential Questions

Not Essential Questions

• How do the arts shape, as well as reflect, a culture? • What common artistic symbols were used by the Incas and the Mayans?
What do effective problem solvers do when they get stuck? • What steps did you follow to get your answer?
How strong is the scientific evidence? • What is a variable in scientific investigations?”

(Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2013) Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD (Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development).

I offer additional examples:

  • What are the ramifications of cloning?
  • What is intelligence?
  • Are we really free?
  • Where does perception end and reality begin?
  • Does history really repeat itself?
  • Are there any absolutes?
  • Are there other more pressing issues that deserve consideration before space exploration?
  • What was the greatest invention of the 20th Century?

Significant learning is sometimes messy as there are many layers, many dots to connect before the picture emerges and becomes intelligible and clear. Essential questions help learners see patterns, and fit pieces of the puzzle together. These types of questions can also tantalize and motivate students moving them forward into the very heart of a discipline and helping to create an appreciation for doing the work of a subject. And it is important to acknowledge from the beginning that often essential questions are usually ones that don’t have right or wrong, or definitive answers. Some are also existential in nature. Many are the BIG questions that we ask throughout our lives.

Try it out
  1. Create five new essential questions to direct your teaching. Or, from previous course content, reflectively distill at least five essential questions covered in your course. You can do this by examining the directions of your content and where it is taking your learners. If you cannot answer where you are taking your learners and to what end, then you have some serious work to do!
  2. In my earlier pieces on this website concerning instructional design, I have asked you to create an end vision of your learner. Now I am asking you:

a. How are the essential questions you created for your course tied to your end vision of the learner?

b. Do they help direct the learner to some specific end point, or to greater or deeper knowledge within the discipline, or to other essential questions, or to creating their own questions about the discipline?

3. How will you know that students have understood and attempted to discuss or answered these important questions? What means will you use to assess indicators of understanding, and of finding answers? (Here clearly molded rubrics help clarify expectant behaviors and also make subjective grading easier and more balanced.)

Today’s learners can glean accurate facts and figures from numerous, readily available sources. Part of their educational literacy should demand that they be able to verify sources and check the reliability of their information. But, essential questions are the kinds of questions that should exemplify a student’s educational experiences because these are the types of questions that make students think!


A Baker’s Dozen – 13 questions to help you determine if yours are Essential Questions

No Yes 1.  Is the question meaningful and purposeful?
    2.  Is the question open-ended? Is it one that can be revisited, or has been revisited over time?
    3.  Does the question require support, rationale, or justification, not just an answer or response?
    4.  Does the question lead students to ask other questions? 
    5.  Does the question appeal to or trigger emotional responses?
    6.  Does the question encourage intellectual examination and responses?
    7.  Does the question center on a topic that is relevant to students? Is it a major issue, a problem, of particular interest or concern to their generation?
    8.  Does the question encourage discussion and/or collaboration?
    9.  Does the question ask the student to consider moral or ethical issues?
    10. Does the question encourage discourse, discussion, or debate?
    11. Does the question ask the learner to make a decision(s), create a plan of action, or come to a conclusion after examining related facts and issues?
    12. Does the question encourage higher levels of cognitive processing – analysis, inference, evaluation, predicting, synthesis or creation. 
    13. Does the question lead the learner to important, transferable, applicable ideas that may cross disciplines or subjects, or help unite varied disciplines? 

Sources and resources:

Jacobs, H. (1997). Refining the map through essential questions. In Mapping the Big Picture: Integrating Curriculum & Assessment K-12 (25-33). Alexandria, VA: ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2013) Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD (Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development).

An excellent extension of this brief discussion:

eMints National Trainer – Essential Questions and questioning strategies PDF @ http://www.trainer.provo.edu/bryce/6-porter/files/documents/essquestions.pdf

Learn more about the art of creating questions. See Five Basic Types of Questions.                  

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