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Essential Questions Are Essential for Student Success!

February 9, 2024

By: Kendall Hunt RPD with contributions from the editorial team

Do you know what essential questions are and how they can benefit your students and classroom?

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?

Essential questions are open-ended, stimulating, and challenging questions that require a higher-order thinking and invite multiple perspectives. They are not limited to one subject or discipline, but rather connect different fields of knowledge and thought processes. They also generate more questions and demand evidence and reasoning. They can also be revisited to repeatedly deepen learning and understanding.

Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, two foremost educational researchers, and leading experts in education, have explained the concept and value of essential questions in their book Essential Questions, Opening Doors to Student Understanding. They have proposed many ideas about the importance of essential questions, some of which were instrumental in the creation of our customized Pathways2.0 reading, and language arts program, developed for grades 1-8. Within the program essential questions are incorporated as one of the four main components. 

Let’s look at 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?

You can see that the essential question is more broad, complex, and engaging when compared to the nonessential question. It allows students to explore the topic from different angles and interests, rather than just memorizing facts and details. It also helps students to develop their own voice and opinions, rather than just repeating what the teacher or the textbook says. Essential questions empower students to take charge of their own learning and become independent thinkers.

This is the goal of the Pathways2.0 reading and language arts program, which uses essential questions to guide students from the “I Do, You Watch” stage, where the teacher models and students observe, to the “You Do, I Watch” stage, where students lead, and teachers support. Essential questions help students make sense of what they read, write, and learn, and encourage them to go deeper and further.

Additionally, the ByDesign Science curriculum for grades 1–8 also incorporates essential questions as the titles of each lesson. For instance, Chapter 2 of the Grade 1 ByDesign curriculum, “Animals,” consists of three lessons. Each lesson has an essential question as its title: “What Are Animals?” “Which Animals Have a Backbone?” and “How Do Animals Grow and Change?” By using essential questions as lesson titles, students can easily identify the focus of the lesson and apply what they learn to answer the question. Essential questions also capture students’ attention, activate their prior knowledge, and direct their attention to the key concepts and skills of the lesson. 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 continue through the school year, think about how you can use essential questions in your classroom and curriculum. Essential questions can help you motivate and inspire your students, as well as enhance their learning and understanding.

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