Essential Questions

Teaching for understanding demands that our methods encourage ongoing inquiry. One way to prompt inquiry is to base a unit on one or more essential questions. Frequent references to essential questions is a powerful way to let students know that the unit is about understanding not just about memorizing facts or learning skills. According to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in "Understanding By Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units" a question is essential if it is meant to...

  1. Cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas of the core content.
  2. Provoke deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions.
  3. Require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers.
  4. Stimulate vital ongoing rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, prior lessons.
  5. Spark meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences.
  6. Naturally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations.

Tips for Using Essential Questions

  • Organize units of study around an essential question
  • Make the content seem to be answers to the question
  • Edit questions to make them engaging and as provocative as possible…and use kid language.
  • Ensure every student understands the question and sees its value.
  • Post the questions in your classroom.
  • Allow sufficient time to “unpack” the questions.
  • Share your questions with colleagues.

Here are examples of essential questions organized by subject area.

Essential Questions in Social Studies

  • Whose story is this? Whose voices aren't we hearing?
  • What can we learn from the past?
  • Why study history?
  • How should governments balance the rights of individuals with the common good?
  • Should ___________(e.g.,immigration, alcohol and drugs, media) be restricted or regulated? When? Who decides?
  • Why do people move? When do they "have to" move and when do they "choose to" move?
  • What is worth fighting for? Who decides?
  • How do we know what happened in the past?
  • What can we legitimately infer from artifacts?
  • Is it true that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it?
  • What makes places unique and different?
  • How do a region's geography, climate, and natural resources affect the way people live and work?
  • What story do maps and gloves tell?
  • How do maps and globes change?
  • How do maps and globes reflect history?
  • How does ehre we live influence how we live?
  • Who should govern or rule?
  • Why do we have rules and laws?
  • How do different political systems vary in their toleration and encouragement of change?
  • How do politics and economics interrelate?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of citizens in a democracy?
  • What constitutes a great leader?
  • How is power gained, used, and justified?

Essential Questions in Mathematics

  • What kind of problem is this?
  • What should I do when I'm stuck?
  • When is estimation better than counting?
  • How can I simplify this into a more familiar and easier-to-work-with quantity
  • What is the pattern?
  • What can patterns reveal?
  • How does what we measure influence how we measure? How does how we measure influence what we measure (or don't measure)?
  • How accurate (precise) does this need to be?
  • Given ____________, what can we conclude? What can't be concluded?
  • What do the best problem solvers do?
  • What is number?
  • Can everything be quantified?
  • How do we best represent the part and whole relationship? the pattern? the sequence?
  • In what ways does a model illuminate and in what ways does it distort?
  • When is simplification helpful? Harmful?
  • How sure are you? What's the likely margin of error?
  • What is proof? Do I have one?
  • Whats the deal with decimals?
  • In what ways can numbers be composed and decomposed?
  • What's the connection between multiplication & division?

Essential Questions in Language Arts

  • Why write? What if writing didn't exist?
  • What is the relationship between "fiction" and "truth?"
  • How are stories from other places and times about me?
  • Have we run across this idea before?
  • What do good readers do?
  • What makes a great story?
  • What is the author saying? What makes you think so?
  • How do texts differ, and how should I read as a result?
  • What should I do when the text doesn't make any sense?
  • How do effective writers hook and hold their readers?
  • Why am I writing? For whom?
  • Why speak? What do good speakers sound like?
  • How is the spoken language different from written language?
  • What is body language? Why use it?
  • What does a good listener listen for?
  • Can one hear but not listen?
  • Why read fiction?
  • What is the relationship between "fiction" and "truth"? Is historical fiction a contradiction?
  • Why read? What can we learn from print?
  • Can all of our experiences be put into words?
  • What's new and what's old here?
  • So what? Why does it matter?
  • How much does grammar matter?

Essential Questions in Art

  • What is art? How does it differ from "crafts"?
  • Where can we find art?
  • What is the artistic process?
  • What factors influence artistic expression?
  • How can we "read" and understand a work of art?
  • What can artworks tell us about a culture oar a society? How can they mislead us about that culture or society?
  • What's the difference between a thoughtful and thoughtless critique?
  • Do artists have a responsibility to their audiences? Do audiences have a responsibility to artists?
  • Do artists have a responsibility to their audiences? to society?
  • Should we ever censor artistic expression?
  • What if we didn't have the arts in our world?

Essential Questions in Science

  • What makes objects move the way they o? Why does this thing move that way?
  • What are we made of? What is everything make of?
  • How are structure and function related in living things? Why is this creature doing this and built like that?
  • Where did it go? (with reference to conservation of energy and matter)
  • How should we evaluate a scientific claim?
  • How can we best measure what we cannot directly see?
  • Do the data warrant that otherwise-plausible explanation?
  • Is this error an avoidable mistake or inherent in the data?
  • How do we come to know the natural world and our place in it?
  • How do we classify the things around us? What is the basis of life?
  • How can we probe cells make up living things?
  • How do species change through time?
  • What are the life cycles of living things?
  • What is a system?
  • How do systems interact?
  • How are force and motion connected
  • How and why does matter change?
  • How is energy conserved?
  • How and why do machines make work easier?
  • What relationships if any, exist among different kinds of atoms?
  • How are molecules arranged in different states of matter?

Essential Questions in World Languages

  • What are the key similarities and differences between (target language) and English?
  • How do I get beyond thinking in English?
  • What is the best way for me to retain as much language as possible in long-term memory?
  • How might the context help me understand words I do not know?
  • What should I do when I am stuck?
  • How can I sound more like a native speaker?
  • How can I keep the conversation going?
  • How can I explore and describe cultures without stereotyping them?

Essential Questions in Performing Arts

  • How is feeling or mood conveyed musically? Visually? thru movement?
  • In what ways have technological changes influence artist expression?
  • Is the medium the message?
  • Do artists have a responsibility to their audiences?
  • Should we ever censor artistic expression?
  • What is we didn't have music in our world?
  • What can we learn from studying the music of others?
  • Does music have a message? How would we know?