Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Monday morning memo ~ 18

What is an "essential question?"

Essential questions are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence. Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions - including thoughtful student questions. They are broad and full of cross-curricular transfer possibilities.

Essential questions enable students to uncover the real riches of a topic otherwise obscured in texts or routine teacher-talk.

Not only do essential questions stimulate thought and inquiry, they can be used to effectively frame our content goals. For example, if the standard is to learn about the three branches of the government, an essential question could be, "why do we need the three branches of the government?"

The best questions serve not only to promote understanding of the content of a unit on a particular topic; they also spark connections and promote transfer of ideas from one setting to others. We call these such questions "essential."

Tips for using essential questions:

Use a reasonable number of questions (two to five) per unit. Make less be more.

Frame the questions in "kid language" as needed to make them more accessible. Edit the questions to make them as engaging and provocative as possible for the age group.

Ensure that every child understands the questions and sees their value.

Design specific exploratory activities and inquiries for each question.

Sequence the questions so they naturally lead from one to another.

Post the essential questions in the classroom, and encourage students to organize their notes and work around those specific questions.

Good essential questions engender other good questions. It is therefore useful to think of a family of related questions as anchoring a course and a unit, and also to make clear to students that their questions that arise naturally are part of clarifying the essential questions.


  1. It should be noted that a good essential question allows the educator to be creative in solving the gap problems in student achievement.

    1. Bill, that is absolutely correct and well stated! I think the good essential questions don't limit themselves to just focusing on the teacher, but rather allow and encourage the student to personalize the learning to his/her needs, thus helping to diminish the learning gap. A good essential question doesn't limit the confines of learning, but rather expands and creates room for creativity and innovation.

      Thanks for the comment!