Achieving transformational learning begins the way all other learning does—with a question.
Need some essential questions? Here are over 100 essential questions examples by category. Dive in and discover them now!
Grant Wiggins and his colleague Jay McTighe did so much to bring an awareness of how to create meaningful essential questions in education. They knew as we do now, that the questions we ask our students matter.
“The big-idea questions signal that education is not just about learning the answer, but about learning how to learn.”
— Grant Wiggins
In our Essential Questions Guide and our Purposeful Questioning Masterclass, we define an essential question as one that leads us to explore the problem and choose from plans and strategies to generate an applicable solution. It’s much more than that, though.
What is a good Essential Question?
- Has no definite or singular answer
- Requires justification or support
- Is beyond topic or skills
- Triggers the hydra effect (investigate one question, and more appear)
- Is timeless and naturally recurs
- Can be elemental or foundational if within a discipline
- Stimulates critical and continual rethinking
- Engages a deeply personal connection
“They are the kinds of questions that can drive us, haunt us, and move us to search for answers.”
— Lee Crockett
All the essential questions are broken down into different categories. So off you go! Explore, ponder, and never stop asking questions.
Essential Questions for Social Studies
- How can one individual’s experience reflect the struggles of an entire nation?
- How does our understanding of the culture of a people help us communicate with them most effectively?
- How do we overcome prejudice and social bias?
- Why do we study and examine our past, present, and future?
- How do you define the term “perfection” in contrast to how it is portrayed in our pop culture media?
- In a culture full of ideas and images of what we should be, how do we form an identity that remains true and authentic for the individual?
- Why do we sometimes oppress each other when we gain power?
- Is there a price to obtaining freedom from oppression? If so, what is it?
- How do we determine the ideals that should be honoured in a model society and explain why they are the most important?
- How can we help people struggling in underprivileged regions of the world lead better lives?
- How does conflict lead to change across varying levels of society?
- What are the benefits and consequences of questioning/challenging authority?
- How does the study of history help us realize that ideas and actions of individuals and groups have consequences and shape events?
- How can we be sure of what really happened in our past?
Essential Questions for English Language Arts
- What strategies can you use to make writing come alive for a reader?
- What are the reasons that cultures and individuals create narratives of their experiences?
- What makes a story effective for its purpose?
- What moves us to communicate through digital and non-digital media?
- What makes writing worth reading, and why should we do it?
- How does what you read influence how you should read it?
- How does an author create meaning in a text, and what makes that meaning valid?
- In what ways can we express ourselves when we don’t know another’s language?
- How can we use story writing and storytelling to help solve everyday problems?
- How can we use knowledge of the structure of language to write more persuasively?
- How can you make a convincing case about a problem that inspires people to take action?
- What are some strategies for building effective oral communication skills?
Essential Questions for The Arts
- How does a song, piece of art, or dance communicate with us?
- What is “art” and why do individual cultures place so much value on its continuing evolution?
- What inner and outer factors influence how we express ourselves artistically?
- What kinds of responsibilities does an artist have to an audience or a consumer?
- Do audiences and consumers have any responsibility towards artists? If so, what are they?
- What are the fundamental differences between a “thoughtful” and a “thoughtless” critique?
- What do we mean when we refer to music as the universal language?
- How can we use the arts to inspire positive action?
- What would the world be like if we weren’t able to artistically express ourselves?
- What can the art forms of other cultures teach us about ourselves and about life?
Essential Questions for Mathematics
- In what ways do we use math in everyday life?
- How can I best represent a pattern using mathematical principles?
- How could we use mathematics to create a better world?
- How do pictures, graphs, tables, and data “paint a thousand words?”
- In what ways can mathematical problems conceal as much as they reveal?
- How do we identify patterns and use them to predict what will happen next?
- How can we compare the sizes of objects when we can’t place them next to each other?
- When and how has mathematics played pivotal roles throughout our world’s history?
- How do I determine the best strategy to use for tackling a specific mathematical problem?
- When solving multi-step problems using charts, tables, and graphs, how can you tell if the information you provide is sufficient?
Essential Questions for Science
- What tools can an individual use to judge the difference between illusion and reality?
- How do we determine what is truly “real” and what is not?
- How can we predict what life will be like 30 years from now?
- When can we be sure that estimation is more appropriate than finding an exact answer?
- How can I represent a large object accurately on paper or in a small model?
- How can I make larger representations of small objects?
- When and how do scientific theories change?
- How can we be sure that the universe beyond our world is truly “infinite”?
- How do we make predictions for the future and ensure that they have validity?
- How do we create, test, and validate a scientific model?
- Why is it important that we recognize universal patterns existing within our world?
Essential Questions for Ethics and Morality
- What is morality and what are the factors that have an impact on its development?
- Why do we choose to use labels in society, and when can they be harmful?
- What is the difference between truth and fact?
- How is our perception of good and evil shaped by our films, books, and video games?
- If you could choose one rule for the entire world to adhere to, what would it be and why?
- Is civilization and order necessary to survival? Why or why not?
- Why is having values and beliefs important and how can we form them independently?
- Is humanity inherently “good” or inherently “evil?” Why do you feel this way?
- How do different cultures shape our definitions of good and evil?
- Why is it crucial to consider the effects of our words and actions on other people?
- What are the attributes of heroism and how could they change?
Essential Questions for Health and Wellness
- What does it mean to be truly healthy?
- Why is it necessary for long-term health and wellness to achieve balance in our lives, and how can we achieve it?
- What would be the short- and long-term effects of all living humans striving to understand each other?
- How do we define “happiness” for ourselves and how important it is in our lives?
- Why (and how) does choosing activities we enjoy contribute to our whole-being health?
- What causes some to thrive while others fail in the face of a challenge?
- What personal qualities do you have that help you deal with conflict, challenge, and adversity?
- In what ways does where you live influence how you live?
- What is the difference between “surviving” and “living”?
- How does what we eat impact our health in both the short and long term?
- How does being healthy affect our relationships with others?
- What is special about how you deal with personal conflicts and change, and how could this help someone else?
- Why is it so important for us to ensure that our lives have “meaning”?
- How can we support people who feel alone and are uncertain about themselves due to social and psychological factors?
Essential Questions for The Global Community
- What does the term “global community” mean to you and why is sustaining it important?
- Are there universal characteristics of belief systems that are common across all cultures? What are they and how can they bring us together?
- How could we ensure and sustain enough food, water, and clothing for every living person on Earth?
- How has technology transformed how we see ourselves and others? Is this good or bad?
- How can small actions eventually change the world?
- What is your vision of a “perfect society” and how would you describe it?
- How do we decide if the world as it is today is better or worse than it was in the past?
- How does what we know about the world affect how we view ourselves?
- Why does it often seem to take a global disaster or crisis to inspire us to help each other?
- What personal contributions and changes can we make to help reduce the effects of global warming?
- How can we ensure our world is preserved for future generations?
Essential Questions for Personal Development and Responsibility
- If you were to leave behind your own legacy for future generations, what would it would be and why?
- How can we ensure that conflicts lead to constructive change and a positive outcome for everyone involved?
- What qualities and characteristics make a person “mature” and “responsible”?
- Why is it important to be grateful?
- What role(s) do I play in defining my own future?
- How do we form and shape a personal identity for ourselves?
- How do our relationships with others change us?
- How is useful failure beneficial to our personal development?
- What is the difference between management and leadership, and which is more important?
- In a culture where we are bombarded with other people trying to define us, how do we make decisions for ourselves?
- What are the elements of true friendship and how might these change or grow over time?
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Nov 16, 2017, updated September 20, 2021