Essential questions differ from other types of important questions used by teachers. Essential questions help to establish meaning, promote transfer and point to the larger understandings we want students to acquire. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Essential Questions. Opening Doors to Student Understanding propose that a question is essential if it is meant to
- Cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas of the core content.
- Provoke deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions.
- Require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers.
- Stimulate vital ongoing rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons.
- Spark meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experience.
- Naturally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations.
Intention is key. The stem used to state the question is far less important than how it used.
Essential questions are also related to the enduring understandings addressed in the unit. Essential questions should point students to those understandings. Both authors also identify three different but related meanings for essential:
- Essential questions may be important or timeless, recurring throughout one’s life.
- Essential question may be elemental or foundational to a discipline or subject, “such questions 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.” (p. 7).
- Essential questions may refer to understandings that tie isolated facts or ideas together, highlight common misunderstandings, or understandings typical of experts in a field.
Links to resources on Essential Questions in different Disciplines can be found here.
Hear from teachers, students and Grant Wiggins on using Essential Questions in your classroom at this site.
In this post Grant Wiggins describes the process of using Essential Questions to structure your instruction.
Here is another teacher’s reflection on Essential Questions in her English classroom.