Essential Questions

Essential Questions

Essential questions have no simple answer. They are arguable and lead to more questions or to deeper understandings.

Essential questions are not intended to yield a simple matter of fact. Rather, they serve as doorways into focused yet lively discussion, inquiry, and research. They uncover rather than cover up the subject’s controversies, puzzles, and perspectives. While the teacher may want the inquiry to culminate in specific understandings, essential questions are designed to elicit a variety of plausible approaches and answer: For example, Does art reflect culture or help shape it? Can we look yet not see? Why do seers see that the rest of us don’t? Does the artist see more clearly or look elsewhere?

Essential questions raise other important questions, often across subject boundaries.

Essential questions lead to other essential questions as well as to topic-specific questions. For example, the question, In nature, do only the strong survive?, leads to questions such as What do we mean by strong? or Are insects strong since they are survivors? These essential questions also will lead to other inquiries into human biology and the physics of physiology.

Essential questions often address the philosophical or conceptual foundations of a discipline.

Essential questions are found in a discipline's historically important issues, problems, and debates, such as Is history inevitably biased? What is a proof? How does a law differ from a hunch?

Essential questions naturally and appropriately recur to highlight big ideas and issues.

The same important question is repeated throughout the history of the field and during the course of an individual's learning journey. The question, What makes a great book great?, for example, can be productively examined by first graders and re-examined by college students.

Essential questions provoke and sustain student inquiry, while focusing learning and final products of learning.

Questions work best when they are thought-provoking and capable of engaging students in sustained, focused investigations that culminate in an important demonstration and communication of the knowledge gained. Essential questions often involve the counter-intuitive, the visceral, the whimsical, the controversial, the provocative.  Examples include, Is the Internet dangerous for kids? Are censorship and democracy compatible? Does food that is good for you have to taste bad? Why write?

Essential questions can be overarching and topical, convergent and divergent.

Questions of different scope and purpose are used to uncover important ideas in a unit. Overarching questions transcend the unit topic. Topical questions point to the specific ideas and issues of the unit. Convergent questions point toward the desired understandings, while divergent questions aim to provoke more questions and new inquiries.

Sample Essential Questions

Access a listing of sample essential questions.

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