39: Essential Questions




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What are essential questions?

  • thought provoking questions that guide students to key big ideas in the discipline
  • broad questions full of many transfer opportunities
  • engaging, stimulates lively discussions
  • requires students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support and justify their ideas
  • naturally recur, create opportunities to transfer to other contexts and contents
Rationael for Essential Questions:
  • Essential questions are examples of important questions that can recur throughout our lives.
  • Essential questions point toward key inquiries related to big ideas in disciplines.
  • Essential questions help students investigate core concepts in the discipline.
Tips for Writing Essential Questions
  • design questions that are student friendly, thought provoking, challenging, and a priority
    • examples: How precise must we be? To what extent is DNA destiny? In what ways is algebra real and unreal? What makes writing worth reading?
  • Jeopardy method: start with unit topics and brainstorm questions
  • Use 6 facets of understanding to craft questions
  • It is OK to design essential questions that are engaging to students, but not necessarily to professionals
Tips for Implementing Essential Questions
  • Check that students understand the essential question
  • Design inquiry activities based on essential question
  • Use several, logically sequenced essential questions in one project
  • Post essential question(s) in classroom
  • Help students to personalize essential questions by sharing hunches and related personal stories
  • Allot sufficient time for unpacking essential question(s)
  • Share essential questions with other teacher to create opportunities for shared or related essential questions in multiple contents
For more information about essential questions, check out this article: Crafting driving questions.


Essential questions avoid designing curriculum with 2 pitfalls: 1) hands on, but not minds on 2) coverage instead of un-coverage.  They can inspire students to engage deeply in content.  They can frame big ideas that recur in the course.  They can be used to design curricula that treat students as potential performers, not sideline observers.  Students can learn how experts ask questions. Students can learn how to go beyond accepting facts based on faith; they learn how to accept knowledge baed on evidence. Essential questions can help students explore connections among ideas.


Essential questions can signal to students that learning is not just about finding the answer, but about learning how to learn. They provide opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery through transfer of knowledge to unique contexts.  They point towards big ideas in the disciplines.  They show that the conclusions yield by big ideas can vary due to varying contexts.  Investigating essential questions can help students focus on and uncover ideas specific to a project.


Preparation Steps
  • Analyze standards.  Identify enduring understandings and supporting skills.
  • Design essential questions that align to enduring understandings in the standards.
  • Design activities that guide students to inquire into and investigate the essential question and related questions.
  • Post essential question(s) in classroom.
  • Ask for feedback on essential question(s) and use feedback to revise.
Early Implementation Steps
  • Communicate and discuss essential question early in the project.
  • Let students develop questions and hunches and stories that relate to essential question early in the project.
  • Let students investigate questions, hunches and stories related to essential question.
  • Use essential question as a pre-assessment and diagnostic tool at several points in the project.
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • Design several essential questions that frame different phases in a project.
  • Ask students to revise essential questions to make them more clear and provocative.



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