Designing and Using Essential Questions

From KNILT

Return to: ETAP 623 Fall 2018 - Systematic Design of Instruction | Heather Kirk-Davidoff's portfolio page


Welcome to Designing and Using Essential Questions!

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The following scenario may remind you of experiences you've had in a classroom:

The administration of a college announces that it is offering a half-day training course on "Implicit Bias" and strongly encourages all faculty and staff to enroll. Soon, all classes are fully enrolled and when the first group gathers there is a sense of excitement in the room. The two trainers begin by welcoming everyone and assuring the group that the course will be "highly interactive". "We aren't here to listen to ourselves talk," they tell the group. "We want to this to be a conversation, not a lecture."

With that, they begin their Power Point presentation. The first slide reads, "What is implicit bias?" "Who wants to take a crack at this?" one of the leaders asks. A number of hands go up, and the first person who is called on offers a thoughtful, somewhat academic response. "Okay, that's close," the trainer responds, "Let's hear from some other people." Fewer hands are now in the air but several people offer additional comments. The trainer then cuts off the discussion and advances to the next slide which shows a definition of implicit bias. The trainer reads the definition out loud and says, "Some of you almost got it."

The training continues with a series of similar questions: What is discrimination? How can we confront implicit bias? Each time the group is asked to respond and then the correct answer is presented. Soon, people stop responding to the questions and just wait to read the answer on the next slide.

All teachers ask questions of their students, but not all of the questions they ask encourage students to engage in inquiry. When teachers ask students questions simply to set them up to be corrected, students soon learn not to respond. But when teachers ask a different kind of question--a question that does not have single, correct answer, a question that can be asked and re-asked, a question that may even spark some controversy--students start thinking more deeply and become motivated to learn more.

Educators Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins (2013) call questions of this sort "Essential Questions". They argue that when we frame our teaching around Essential Questions, students learn more than answers--they learn how to ask questions that will help them to keep learning.

Essential Questions are, as the phrase suggestions, questions that relate to the essence of a discipline or field of study. Essential Questions cannot be answered through a Google search! They let everyone know that the subject of the course matters because it speaks to questions that matter--to the students and to the world. When educators root a unit of instruction in Essential Questions, their classes become more engaging and relevant and the learning that results is more likely to last.

Needs Assessment

Instructional Problem: In the body of work called Understanding by Design (2005), McTighe and Wiggins make the case that the overarching goal of all education is the "understanding of important ideas and processes" so that students "can transfer their learning within and outside school" (McTighe & Wiggins, 2013, p. 4). Their research has shown that when a unit of curriculum is framed by essential questions it is "more likely to yield focused and thoughtful learning and learners" (p. 17). Instruction that has essential questions at its heart makes it clear to students that learning is not just about memorizing and repeating facts. Learning requires thinking.

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What is to be learned: McTighe and Wiggins identify six characteristics of an essential question:

  1. Open-ended: Essential questions don't have a "correct" answer and our answer to them may change over time.
  2. Intellectually Engaging: Essential questions call on students to use higher-order thinking.
  3. Reflect "Big Ideas": Essential questions speak to issues and problems that are important to a particular field of study.
  4. Raise Additional Questions: Essential questions lead students to ask other questions of their own.
  5. Answers Require Support: Essential questions are not intended to simply generate an answer--students are expected to make a case for their answer using evidence and reason.
  6. Recur Over Time: Students can productively consider essential questions again and again.

Performance Objectives

  1. Participants will demonstrate understanding of the defining characteristics of Essential Questions by differentiating between Essential Questions and other types of questions.
  2. Participants will create Essential Questions appropriate to their current teaching context.
  3. Participants will identify 4 ways to implement Essential Questions in their classrooms to deepen understanding and increase student engagement.

Course Units

This mini-course includes the following units. Click the title of a unit to go to its page.

Before you begin: How do you currently use questions in your teaching?

Module 1: What is an Essential Question?

Objective: Participants will demonstrate understanding of the defining characteristics of Essential Questions by differentiating between Essential Questions and other types of questions.

Module 2: Writing your own Essential Questions

Objective: Participants will create Essential Questions appropriate to their current teaching context.

Module 3: Using Essential Questions in our classrooms

Objective: Participants will identify 4 ways to implement Essential Questions in their classrooms to deepen understanding and increase student engagement.

Extended Resources

Print Resources:

McTighe, J. (2017). Designing and using essential questions. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development ASCD.

McTighe, J. & Seif, A. (2003).Teaching for Meaning and Understanding – A Summary of Underlying Theory and Research. Pennsylvania Educational Leadership, 24(1), 6-14.

McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development ASCD.

Web Resources:

essentialquestions.org