Think about what you want for your students. Yes, we all want our students to master the standards and learning objectives. But as educators we should want more than that. Personally, I want to see my students now, and later in life, become life-long learners who are growing in wisdom as followers of Christ. For that to happen, the learning must be relevant and applicable to the everyday challenges of life. One way to accomplish this is through the use of essential questions. This article will explain what essential questions are and what they are not, give the key components of an essential question, discuss the flexibility of essential questions, and give some ideas on how to formulate and choose essential questions.
While there is a variety of definitions, the essence of an essential question is what you want the students to learn. However, it goes much deeper than that. Good essential questions attempt to turn students into problem solvers by “requiring them to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers” (Wiggins and McTigue, 2013). One of the key components of this is to challenge students to question previously held assumptions. Often our students, because of easy and quick access to technology, only see one side of an issue or idea. When teachers use open-ended questions to promote reflective thinking processes, they challenge students to question previously held assumptions or conclusions. This helps them to become better problem solvers later in life. In turn, students may become more self-aware of their own learning processes and understandings of any given issues or problems (metacognition). In a society and culture that has become so polarized, it is invaluable for students to be able and willing to see both sides of an issue.
What makes a good essential question? Let’s first address what essential questions are not. “Explicit and frequent reference to essential questions sends a powerful signal that a unit is about understanding, not merely the acquisition of knowledge and skill” – essential questions are not limited to the surface level of understanding (Wiggins and McTigue, 2013). Essential questions generally do not have objective answers. For example, questions like “What key event sparked the American Revolution”? or “What are the steps of the scientific method”? might make good quiz questions, but they don’t elicit higher-order thinking skills. The great thing about essential questions is that they are open-ended and force students to mull over the answers. Another way to look at it is that the answer to an essential question is not something a student should be able to easily “Google.”
Good essential questions have five key components:
- Require higher-level thinking: evaluation, analysis, and synthesis. Ex. Why and how do scientific theories change? (Science)
- Allow for a variety of acceptable answers. Ex. Why do people move? (Human Geography)
- “Grab” the learner’s attention – are intriguing and thought-provoking. Ex. Is there ever a “just war”? (History)
- Are student-friendly – are short and use developmentally appropriate vocabulary. Ex. What should I do in my head when trying to learn a language? (World Languages)
- Involve students in connecting course content to their lives, to other subject areas, and to gaining a biblical perspective. Ex. What is truth? (Science, History, Bible)
(Five components of an essential question developed on February 16, 2006, by Laura Kos, John Keeley, Michael Essenburg, and Dan Beerens.)
Good essential questions can also serve in many other ways.
- Clarify and prioritize standards: “naturally recurring so that students can make connections to the standards using big ideas and concepts” (Wiggins & McTigue, 2013).
- Allow for curriculum integration: “Essential questions provide natural and appropriate points of connection” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2013).
- Support differentiation to address the needs of a diverse student body: the same essential questions can be used with different groups of students in any content area (Wiggins & McTighe, 2013).
- Helps students develop a biblical worldview: “Ask essential questions that lead students to consider biblical principles” (Bradfield, 2017).
The Flexibility of Essential Questions
Because they are not objective in nature, essential questions can be a great tool for formative assessment. They are an easy and natural way to check for understanding of the broad concepts in a unit and help a school move more in the direction of building a culture of learning and away from a culture of grading. When students are engaged with open-ended and thought-provoking questions that are challenging previously held assumptions and are applicable to everyday life, the letter grade becomes less of an issue. The goal becomes more about learning, understanding, and problem-solving and less about a numerical score on a test.
Essential questions can also be a catalyst for teaching authentic literacy. Students can write to solve problems that “require higher level thinking skills, evaluation and analysis” (Wiggins & McTigue, 2013). The question that allows for a variety of acceptable answers will motivate the student to read and research a topic from multiple perspectives before writing and communicating a response. As mentioned earlier, essential questions recurring throughout a unit can for example be used as reflection questions to elicit a written response and check for understanding. All of this improves students’ ability to read, write, and communicate.
Lastly, essential questions can help build a biblical worldview in our students. Faith Academy in Manila, Philippines asks teachers to formulate essential questions that are connected to one or more learning targets while showing a clear relation with biblical truth (Foutz, 2015). Another approach is to simply ask essential questions that lead students to consider biblical principles (Bradfield, 2017).
Choosing Essential Questions
Teachers can individually or collaboratively practice formulating essential questions using the five components of a good essential question listed above. There are also many resources available that give the teacher the option to choose good and effective essential questions. Many teachers borrow essential questions from other school districts or look for examples from other sources. For example, Carolyn McConnell’s The Essential Questions Handbook would be a great resource.
All the things we need to teach our students, from state standards to the skills of reading and writing to developing a biblical worldview, can be done using essential questions. As mentioned earlier, the beauty of essential questions is that they can potentially provide “natural and appropriate points of connection” to all areas of the curriculum. When we learn how to formulate or find good essential questions, the possibilities are endless. Most importantly, it makes the content relevant and applicable to the everyday life of the student now and in the future.
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Crockett, Lee. “How to Use Essential Questions for the Best Learning Ever.” Future Focused Learning, 10 Jul. 2020.
Elder, Linda and Paul, Richard. The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Asking Essential Questions. Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2016.
Foutz, Brian. “Faith Academy Curriculum Guidelines.” Faith Academy Philippines, May 2015.
Harris, Karen. “How to Lead Students to Engage in Higher Order Thinking.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 9 Dec. 2019.
“How Essential Questions Can Develop Lifelong Learners.” Eduplanet21, 13 May 2020.
Nappi, Judith S. “The Importance of Questioning in Developing Critical Thinking Skills.” The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin: International Journal for Professional Educators, 2018.
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Wiggins, Grant and Wilbur, Denise. “How to Make Your Questions Essential.” Educational Leadership, Sept. 2015.
Wiggins, G. P. and McTighe, J. Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. ASCD, April 2013.
Photo by Olya Kobruseva