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Essential Questions Are Essential for Student Success

June 13, 2019

By: Kendall Hunt RPD with contributions from the writing team of Pathways2.0 and By Design Science grades 1-8

Here’s a question for you: Do you use essential questions in your classroom?

Here’s an essential question for you: Why should you use essential questions in your classroom?

Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, foremost educational researchers, have proposed many ideas about the importance of essential questions, some of which were instrumental in the creation of the Pathways 2.0 customized curriculum. In their 2013 book Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, McTighe and Wiggins offer seven defining characteristics of an essential question:

1. Open-ended

2. Thought-provoking and intellectually engaging

3. Calls for higher-order thinking

4. Cross- and interdisciplinary

5. Raises additional questions

6. Requires support and justification

7. Can be revisited again and again

Rather than asking students to demonstrate specific knowledge from one particular story or topic, essential questions shape student thinking over an entire chapter, book, or unit and encourage synthesis, analysis, and intellectual discussion.

Let’s take an example.

Here’s an essential question: Is there ever such a thing as a “just” war?

Here’s a nonessential question: What were the key factors contributing to the Crusades?

An essential question provides a basis for students to begin their academic and intellectual exploration while also offering room to investigate the areas of most interest to them. Without any guidance, a student may flounder, unable to pick a direction. However, a broad essential question can provide just the right amount of structure, giving a student a general topic from which to extend specific roots that will blossom into ideas about which the student is truly passionate. Essential questions strike a perfect balance between over prescriptive instructions and too-vague suggestions, allowing students to find that “just-right” level of independent learning as they become responsible for their own education in a gradual release of responsibility.

That gradual release of responsibility is one of the hallmarks of the Pathways 2.0 language arts program. It is demonstrated in the shift from the “I Do, You Watch” model, where the teacher demonstrates and students observe, to the eventual “You Do, I Watch” stage, where students are heralds of their own learning. It is essential questions, one of the four broad categories by which we structure the Pathways 2.0 curriculum, that guide the students on their journey to that independence. They are designed to engage learners in making meaning and deepening their understandings.

Our ByDesign Science curriculum for grades 1–8 also relies on essential questions, which serve as the titles for each lesson. For example, Chapter 2 of the Grade 1 ByDesign curriculum, “Animals,” is divided into three lessons. Each lesson’s title is an essential question: “What Are Animals?” “Which Animals Have a Backbone?” and “How Do Animals Grow and Change?” When the essential question doubles as the title of the lesson, students can not only find the question easily, but they will also be prompted to apply the lesson’s content toward answering that question. Placing the essential question in such a prominent place sparks students’ interest, helps you determine their prior knowledge, and focuses their attention on the content in the upcoming lesson.

As you gather the essentials for your classroom and curriculum this fall, consider implementing a customized curriculum as a way to promote the importance of essential questions to your students. In guiding their inquiry while sparking their curiosity, you’ll enrich their educational experience and help them start off the school year on the path to success!

When have you seen the positive impact of essential questions in your classroom?