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Essential Questions Are Essential for Student Success!

April 28, 2022

By: Kendall Hunt RPD with contributions from the editorial team

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 Pathways2.0 and ByDesign Science customized curriculums developed for grades 1-8. 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 – Do not have a single, final, and correct answer.

2. Thought-provoking and intellectually engaging – Often sparking discussion and debate.

3. Calls for higher-order thinking – Cannot be effectively answered by recall alone – analysis, inference, evaluation, and prediction. 

4. Cross and interdisciplinary – Across subject or unit topics, as well as other disciplines.

5. Raises additional questions – Inquiry-based learning is a crucial feature.

6. Requires support and justification – Claim, support, conclusion – not just a singular answer.

7. Can be revisited again and again – Questions revisited, new approaches taken, and new ideas brought to the table.

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

Let’s review examples of an Essential Question and Non-Essential Question.

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 offering room to investigate areas of interest to them. Without any guidance, a student may flounder or may be unable to pick a direction. A broad essential question can, however, provide the right amount of structure, giving students a topic that blossoms into ideas they’re truly passionate about. Essential questions are a perfect balance between over descriptive instructions and too-vague of suggestions, allowing students to find that “just-right” level of independent learning as they become gradually responsible for their own education.

That gradual release of responsibility is one of the hallmarks of the Pathways2.0 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. Essential questions, one of the four broad categories by which we structure the Pathways 2.0 curriculum, guide the students on their journey to that independence. They are designed to engage learners in creating meaningful responses and deepening their understandings.

Essential questions can serve as titles for each lesson, as our ByDesign Science program relies on for grades 1–8.  For example, Chapter 2 of the Grade 1 ByDesign curriculum, “Animals”, is divided into three lessons. Each lesson 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 not only find the question easy but are prompted to apply the lesson’s content in answering the question. Placing the essential question in such a prominent place sparks students’ interest, helping you determine their prior knowledge, and focuses their attention on content in upcoming lessons.

Essential questions help students engage with their existing knowledge and draw new patterns between ideas. As you gather the essentials for your classroom and curriculum, consider implementing a customized curriculum to promote the importance of essential questions to your students. Guiding student inquiry while sparking curiosity will allow you to 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?