Think for a moment about the “best” question someone has ever asked you. As soon as it was posed..
In any great lesson, an essential question is what drives your learners’ quest for knowledge and discovery. How do we begin writing essential questions that matter and that inspire our learners?
One of the transformations occurring in modern learning is students becoming creators of knowledge. It's why we've defined essential questions as one of the 10 shifts of practice in future-focused learning.
In essence, this shift means moving from answering the questions to questioning the answers. It’s about the quest of pursuing an answer to a question that isn't easily obtainable. This is, of course, the essence of an essential question.
The simplest way to define an essential question is to call it an open question. It cannot be answered with a 'yes' or a 'no' or by being labeled true or false. If you can Google the answer or respond in a brief manner, it doesn't inspire intense investigation or creative output.
Essential questions are also tailored to the age and maturity of the students. They must also provide clear opportunities for extension and enrichment while meeting curricular needs.
The Need to Explore and Create
Essential questions explore relevant real-world issues and inspire students to create unique solutions, and within the context of the required curriculum. We want students to find the answers and discover the unknown, and then learn more from that; we want them to get excited about going on that journey.
Being succinct is incredibly important with your EQ. It's just one single question that will drive your whole unit, so be sure to make it count. It should be clear to the teacher and the learners the significance of the question. When writing essential questions and scaffolding the learning process, the teacher and students should be able to articulate:
- Why they answered the question
- The reasons the concepts are important
- How it's important to them as individuals and the wider community
Mastering the art of writing essential questions is a worthwhile pursuit for any teacher. A fundamental question is central to any lesson, so it must inspire deep levels of thinking and foster a desire to discover the truth. We want to present you with six quick considerations for writing essential questions that will help you as you move along in the process.
6 Key Guidelines for Writing Essential Questions
Start With Standards
Have a Clear Challenge
Have Suitable Projects in Mind
Offer Collaborative Opportunities
Stretch Their Imaginations
Play Within Your Limits
1. Start With Standards
What curricular connection do I want to make with my essential question?
The best place to start is with your curriculum because it's what we're responsible for teaching and what learners must learn. It's not just the best place to start; it's the only place. Why not use what you're passionate about in that curriculum? Search your objectives and jot some ideas down for workshopping.
2. Have a Clear Challenge
What is the specific problem or challenge I want students to face in this question?
When writing essential questions, always clearly present some challenge or problem. That's what students must tackle to learn the objectives, so a clear challenge will help them own their learning.
3. Have Suitable Projects in Mind
How can the learners meet the challenge of this EQ using creativity and ingenuity?
Make sure your question gives students a need to develop both a product and a process as a solution. They would then apply that to the problem or challenge. These project descriptions won't appear in the actual question, but you'll form the question with them in the back of your mind.
4. Offer Collaborative Opportunities
What kinds of problems would require students to work together in groups?
Our learners enjoy working together because they can challenge, push, and support each other on levels their teachers sometimes can't. Besides, the sense of agency and autonomy over their learning they receive by working with their peers is invaluable in shaping lifelong learning capacity.
Whenever possible, guide students towards working together. Through collaborative challenges, they'll support each other in problem-solving processes. Remember that effective collaboration can include working with both real and virtual online partners.
5. Stretch Their Imaginations
How can I create curiosity and inspire a knowledge quest with my EQ?
Remember that a question that learners can answer with a simple search isn't essential, so devise questions that stretch their imaginations. As the late Grant Wiggins said, "What is a question that any thoughtful and intellectually alive person ponders and should keep pondering?"
6. Play Within Your Limits
Can these projects be completed within a specific budget/time frame using the technology we have available?
Always keep in mind your time frame and budgetary considerations. Consider what technology you have available for students to use, and always keep your SMART goals in mind (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-efficient).
Writing essential questions is actually easy once you understand the concepts. From there, it's intriguing to think about all the possible solutions that can hide within an essential question. What could they inspire students to create? This element of creating something meaningful is how we connect students to their learning.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Mar 5, 2018, updated September 21, 2021