An essential question is an incredibly powerful tool for discovery learning and critical thinking skill development. Essential and herding questions are also one of the 10 shifts of practice of future-focused learning.
If you consider what learning actually is, it is usually the answer to a need or what springs from curiosity around a personal connection. This usually involves the asking of essential questions to drive the learning. However, when they're working with EQs, teachers often ask, "How can I make essential questions better?"
We're always very happy when someone asks this question. The reason is simple; without a question to drive it forward, learning becomes lost and meaningless, and without purpose. All learning should start with a question, and the time it takes to craft a quality essential question provides many benefits in terms of engagement, context and relevance.
Here’s a catch, though—if you get the answer that you were looking for it doesn’t mean that you’ve asked an essential question in the first place. We need to find out how to make essential questions better by moving them from non-essential to essential in a few easy steps. Below is a surefire way to make basic questions essential and make essential questions even more powerfully essential. We'll also consider a few other things that you can use as a possible checklist for developing the best possible EQs for your learners. The truth is that it's easier than you might think.
The Two-Step Approach to Make Essential Questions Better
When we want to make essential questions better and more essential, we can generally use two basic strategies:
- Move the question higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy: This is about taking the question from simple recall to something that involves more in-depth analysis, evaluation, or even creating something to find an answer (these are the HOTS or higher-order thinking skills on Bloom’s Taxonomy).
- Remove specificity: This is about removing focus. Although many students might love to discuss who is more of a hero, Batman or Superman, a more essential question would be “What is heroism?” The increasingly more specific questions that arise from this become your "herding" questions—questions that drive learners into deeper scrutiny and high levels of discovery and learning.
Let’s look at an example using the following question: How can small actions eventually change the world? As we gradually remove specificity, more essential renditions of this question might be:
- Why should we change the world?
- How do we change?
- Why is change necessary?
- What is change?
Each one of these questions also requires skills at the higher end of Bloom's Taxonomy to be utilized—namely analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Pursuing the answers involves independent critical thinking, analyzing data and evaluating its efficacy, and potentially developing meaningful solutions to real-world problems. This is the focus of future-focused learning, and why we strive to make essential questions better every time we work with them and present them to learners.
Other Things to Try
An essential question is big and open by its very nature. The truth that we search for with these questions is all the more valuable because of that openness. In addition to the two strategies above, you can make essential questions better by keeping a few other key things in mind.
1. Ask "Why"
Basic questions are ones that can be answered in a very short order, typically with the help of something like a Google search. An essential question, on the other hand, is something more. It’s not a destination at all—usually, it’s the point where your journey begins.
In order to transform any question into an essential question, you constantly need to be asking “Why?” as much as possible. This is the key to going deeper and penetrating the superficial knowledge on the surface of an answer to really start to get at the truth underneath.
Start with your basic question, something like:
“Do the songs that we listen to, the books that we read, and the movies that we watch play an important role in shaping society as a whole?”
The answer to this question is an immediate and obvious “yes”—art is one of the most important aspects of civilized culture in general. Though the question may be thought-provoking on the surface, it is not an essential question because of how easily you have arrived at the answer. To take this question and turn it into something more valuable, amend it with a simple “Why?” Suddenly, you’re now going beyond a simple “yes” or “no” and creating a springboard for further critical analysis and intellectual discussion. With that, an essential question is born.
2. Embrace the Open-Ended
One of the core components of any essential question is that it is open-ended in nature. Not only is the answer, not something that you can easily arrive at, but you may never get there at all. There may be no single “right” answer to the question, which may be initially frustrating.
In order to transform a basic question into an essential question, you need to figure out a way to move away from a single answer. Push yourself towards uncertain territory. While the “why?” of it all is certainly a great way to arrive here, it isn’t the only way.
Be sure to identify the additional questions that your basic answer has created. You can then use them as springboards for higher-order thinking and support or justification for that initial answer. Then, you’re well on your way to taking your basic question and turning it into something much more.
3. Use the Perspective of Age
A true essential question isn’t only open-ended, but it may also change as time goes on. If you begin with the concept of art playing an important role in society, for example, take things further by asking the question again from the perspective of a different era.
- How has the way that art played an important role in society different now than it was in 2000? In 1985? In 1960?
- How has our relationship with art evolved?
- Are we better for it?
- Are we worse?
- Why did those changes occur?
- What will happen in the future?
Consider this: how would your perspective on the answers to these questions change if you were ten years older than you are right now? Suddenly, you begin to break a basic question down into a series of parts. You may be moving away from one true answer, but you’re now closer than ever to the most important thing of all: the truth.
You can succeed in making essential questions better if you approach things from the right angle. Remember that while answering a “yes” or “no” question correctly is certainly valuable in its own way, that isn’t necessarily where this particular story ends. By digging deeper into the topic that you’re researching and by always remembering to use the 2-step approach, you can begin to uncover the true meaning of the topic you’re researching. You will come away with a much more valuable perspective on certain issues because of it.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Sep 19, 2018, updated September 17, 2021