Essential Questions by Stephanie Kerby and Melanie Santiago

external image interroglobe.gif
Explanation: Wiggins and McTighe define essential questions as “questions that 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 — not just pat answers” (106). In order to think in terms of questions, “[i]nstead of thinking of content as something to be covered, consider knowledge and skill as the means of addressing questions central to understanding key issues in your subject” (107). The value of framing a course or unit in terms of essential questions is invaluable:
The most vital discipline-bound questions open up thinking and possibilities for everyone — novices and experts alike. They signal that inquiry and open-mindedness are central to expertise, that we must always be learners… [Essential questions] are those that encourage, hint at, even demand transfer beyond the particular topic in which we first encounter them. They should therefore recur over the years to promote conceptual connections and curriculum coherence. (108)

Essential Questions focus on the broader scope of the content providing students with the ability to understand the "big picture."

Essential Questions have the following criteria in common:
They are open-ended and resist a simple or single right answer.
They are deliberately thought-provoking, counterintuitive, and/or controversial.
They require students to draw upon content knowledge and personal experience.
They can be revisited throughout the unit to engage students in evolving dialogue and debate.
They lead to other essential questions posed by students.

Rationale: Educators should learn how to design instruction using essential questions because it allows for inquiry based learning in which students can uncover new ideas, form their own understanding of the content, argue information being learned, and synthesize the information so that it is applicable to their own lives.

Essential Questions can improve the classroom by getting students to think at a deeper level. Essential Questions fuel and direct the inquiry process which is required in the JCPS district. If properly stated, the essential question provokes a dramatic impact, evoking a passionate level of interest as well as a firm commitment to persevere until a satisfying level of understanding is reached.

Essestial Questions for the book The Catcher in the Rye - For example, the overarching question "How do authors use different story elements to establish mood?" can be paired with "How does John Updike use setting to establish mood?" and "How does Ernest Hemingway use the language to establish a mood?" (115). These questions can be applied to various parts of the text and students can use their own text to text/text to self/text to world connections to form answers that can be different from one another. There is not a true "right or wrong" answer because it is open to interpretation.

More Examples of Essential Questions:
How different is a scientific theory from a plausible relief? (Different is the "key" word that makes this essential.)
What is government's proper role? (Proper is the "key" word that makes this essential.)
How "rational" is the market? (How rational lets students interpret this question on their own and gives them the opportunity to form an opinion.)
Who are my true friends - and how do I know for sure? (True can be defined differently by students and how do I know for sure offers an opinion to be shared.)

More examples can be found at the following link:

You might be wondering what would not be an essential question. Essential questions are not leading questions. Leading questions have one answer, right or wrong. Essential questions address the "big idea" or broad scope of the content being taught.

Student Impact: Essential questions “keep us focused on inquiry as opposed to just answers." Students become intrigued by their learning. Essential questions help “students effectively inquire and make sense of important but complicated ideas, knowledge, and know-how — a bridge to findings that experts may believe are settled but learners do not yet grasp or see as valuable." Students, once again as previously stated on this wiki, can synthesize information in a way that is useful to themselves and their own world. Students can guide their own learning, be able to find answers, and aquire knowledge on their own. This in turn teaches them how to be self-sufficient, independent learners that can form their own opinions and solve problems.

What teachers might difficult about implementing this strategy: Learning how to frame the questions. Teachers are used to asking questions at the bottom of Bloom's Taxonomy by forming questions that ask students to apply, comprehend, and "spit" back knowledge. By forming essential questions, teachers learn how to move up the Taxonomy and pose questions that make students analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.

Essential Questions are at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy
  • Evaluate – make a thoughtful choice between options, with the choice based on a clearly stated criteria
  • Synthesize – invent a new or different version
  • Analyze – develop a thorough and complex understanding through skillful questioning.

external image bloomtri.gif

Teacher Likes: There should only be a few essential questions per unit. You should only have 2-5 essential questions per unit. Using essential questions also allows for teachers to gain new knowledge and aquire a new perspective. They also let students interact with one another using higher cognitive functions and thinking skills.

Teacher Dislikes: Essential Questions should not have one word simplistic answers. These questions should make students think. "Wiggins and McTighe argue against using a certain format for framing essential questions, and they note that many times we think of fairly straightforward “yes/no, either/or, and who/what/when questions” as inappropriate for deeper inquiry (111). Teachers have to learn how to frame these types of essential questions. They also have to have the flexibility to allow learning to take it's own course in the classroom, which in some ways in giving up control. Teachers who are not comfortable with facilitating instruction may find this method more challenging.

Tips for using Essential Questions: (
  • Organize programs, courses, units of study, and lessons around the questions.
  • Make the content the answers to the questions.
  • Select or design assessment tasks, up front, that are explicitly linked to the questions.
  • The tasks and performance standards should clarify what acceptable pursuit of, and answers to, the questions actually look like.
  • Use a reasonable number of questions per unit (between two and five). Make less be more.
  • Prioritize content for students to make the work clearly focus on a few key questions.
  • Edit the questions to make them as engaging and provocative as possible for the particular age group. Frame the questions in "kid language" as appropriate.
  • Through a survey or informal check, ensure that every child understands the questions and sees their value.
  • Derive and design specific concrete exploratory activities and inquiries for each question.
  • Sequence the questions so they lead naturally from one to another.
  • Post the overarching questions in the classroom, and encourage students to organize notebooks around them to emphasize their importance for study and note taking.
  • Help students personalize the questions.
  • Encourage them to share examples, personal stories, and hunches, and to bring clippings and artifacts to class to help the questions come alive.
  • Allot sufficient time for "unpacking" the questions—examining subquestions and probing implications.
  • Be mindful of student age, experience, and other instructional obligations.
  • Use question-concept maps to show relatedness of questions.
  • Share your questions with other faculty to make planning and teaching for cross-subject matter coherence far more likely.
  • To promote essential questions schoolwide, ask teachers to post their essential questions in the faculty room or in department meeting and planning areas. Circulate questions in the faculty bulletin and present and discuss them at faculty meetings.

Self Knowledge: Essential questions allow our students to form their own perspectives and points of views while thinking about and questioning the content.

In my 9th grade Social Studies class I have found that essential questions are useful to give students reason and focus for reading, to give students a way to link text to history, promote the use of relevant reading and research strategies, and to give them some control over what they are studying. Essential questions allow them to think deeply about broad topics such as their rights as American citizens, what role should our government play in our economy, do government officials abuse their powers, what can they do become better citizens, etc. Not only do my students think about these topics to a great extent but they start questioning the content and the resources we have studied. These essential questions get them eager and excited to learn more about Social Studies because they can better relate to the content.
In my 5th grade math class, I posed the essential question "How are factors and multiples beneficial in math?" This question did not ask "What is a multiple or a factor?", which would have a right or wrong answer. This question allowed students to decide for themselves how multiples and factors benefit math. Most students turned this into a question that applied to thier own learning of mathematics. They thought of it as how have multiples and factors helped me learn math. This allowed for different interpretations from each student and lead to an engaging discussion in which students were able to share ideas.

Click this link for more helpful tools to design and impelment essential questions:
external image brain3.gif

Resources also listed on the Works Cited page.