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What Is an Essential Question?
Nov 15, 2007
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What is an essential question? An essential question is – well, essential: important, vital, at the heart of the matter – the essence of the issue. Think of questions in your life that fit this definition – but don’t just yet think about it like a teacher; consider the question as a thoughtful adult. What kinds of questions come to mind? What is a question that any thoughtful and intellectually-alive person ponders and should keep pondering?

In Understanding by Design we remind readers that “essential” has a few different connotations: 

One meaning of “essential” involves important questions that recur throughout one’s life. Such questions are broad in scope and timeless by nature. They are perpetually arguable – What is justice?  Is art a matter of taste or principles? How far should we tamper with our own biology and chemistry?  Is science compatible with religion? Is an author’s view privileged in determining the meaning of a text? We may arrive at or be helped to grasp understandings for these questions, but we soon learn that answers to them are invariably provisional. In other words, we are liable to change our minds in response to reflection and experience concerning such questions as we go through life, and that such changes of mind are not only expected but beneficial. A good education is grounded in such life-long questions, even if we sometimes lose sight of them while focusing on content mastery. The big-idea questions signal that education is not just about learning “the answer” but about learning how to learn.  

A second connotation for “essential” refers to key inquiries within a discipline. Essential questions in this sense are those that point to the big ideas of a subject and to the frontiers of technical knowledge. They are historically important and very much “alive” in the field. “What is healthful eating?” engenders lively debate among nutritionists, physicians, diet promoters, and the general public. “Is any history capable of escaping the social and personal history of its writers?” has been widely and heatedly debated among scholars for the past fifty years, and compels novices and experts alike to ponder potential bias in any historical narrative. 

There is a third important connotation for the term “essential” that refers to what is needed for learning core content. In this sense, a question can be considered essential when it helps students make sense of important but complicated ideas, knowledge, and know-how – findings that may be understood by experts, but not yet grasped or seen as valuable by the learner. In what ways does light act wave-like? How do the best writers hook and hold their readers? What models best describe a business cycle? By actively exploring such questions, the learner is helped to arrive at important understandings as well as greater coherence in their content knowledge and skill.

A question is essential when it: 

  1. causes genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas and core content;
  2. provokes deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions;
  3. requires students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers;
  4. stimulates vital, on-going rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons;
  5. sparks meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences;
  6. naturally recurs, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations and subjects.

Here is a variety of subject-area examples of such questions:

How well can fiction reveal truth?

  • Why did that particular species/culture/person thrive and that other one barely survive or die? 
  • How does what we measure influence how we measure? How does how we measure influence what we measure?  
  • Is there really a difference between a cultural generalization and a stereotype? 
  • How should this be modeled? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this model? (science, math, social sciences)


Note that an essential question is different from many of the questions teachers typically ask students in class. The most commonly asked question type is factual – a question that seeks “the” correct answer. For example, in a history class, teachers are constantly asking questions to elicit recall or attention to some important content knowledge: “When did the war break out? Who was President at the time? Why, according to the text, did Congress pass that bill?”

Such questions are clearly not “essential” in the sense discussed above. Rather, they are what we might call ‘teacherly’ questions – a question essential to a teacher who wants students to know an important answer.

Is such a leading question bad? No. There are all sorts of good pedagogical reasons for using a question format to underscore knowledge or to call attention to a forgotten or overlooked idea. But those questions are not “essential” in the sense of signaling genuine, important and necessarily-ongoing inquiries. Teachers have to be careful not to conflate two ideas: “essential to me in my role as a teacher” and “essential to anyone as a thinking person and inquiring student for making meaning of facts in this subject.”

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Displaying 21 - 30 of 78 found comments.  Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8
Posted by: Martin Olsen
Jun 17, 2014
 
Essential questions in a discipline are those that increase a student's understanding in some measurable way. If there is no change in their behavior (when asked do they now demonstrate a greater command of the subject?)then how do we know that learning has occurred.
Posted by: Carol Parrott
Sep 28, 2014
 
This has given me a much clearer understanding of how to form an wssential question.
Posted by: Mary
Oct 16, 2014
 
I use Essential Questions daily with my students in Keyboarding and Computer Applications, which bring focus to their learning and gets the students to higher thinking.
Posted by: Brendan
Nov 21, 2014
 
My understanding is like this: The fact is the "what" a student should learn. The skills are the "how" students should apply learning. The essential question is "why" that learning is meaningful.
Posted by: Kammy K Gilmer
Jan 02, 2015
 
Wow, What clarity. You simply made it understandable. Thanks
Posted by: Betty Liverman
Feb 21, 2015
 
Essential Questions help learners connect their learning to real life application. It is the basis that students will engage in the content, connect the learning to prior knowledge, become curious about how the world works. Therefore as the facilitator of learning, teacher must craft essential questions that moves students toward higher thinking and deeper understanding.
Posted by: Mr Music
Feb 23, 2015
 
What are essential questions when it comes to music classes?
Posted by: REASWA
Mar 03, 2015
 
REASWA
Posted by: thomas nguyen
Mar 23, 2015
 
hi
Posted by: Holloway, Kim
Apr 17, 2015
 
An essential question in a classroom setting is the very meat of the content and information that needs to be learned. An essential question is the ultimate goal of the lesson that it is assigned to. If you can answer your essential question you have captured the content in a nutshell.
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