How to Make Your Questions Essential

flickr photo by mripp shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

flickr photo by mripp shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Strong, provocative questions drive the best discussions and push student thinking. This Educational Leadership piece outlines seven ways to make your essential questions hit their target.

Essential questions rarely arise in a first draft. Here’s how to construct good ones.

The well-known aphorism that “writing is revision” applies particularly well to crafting essential questions. With more than 30 years’ experience in teaching through questions and helping educators create great unit-framing queries, we’ve repeatedly seen the wisdom of this saying.

But what makes a question essential in the first place? Essential questions foster the kinds of inquiries, discussions, and reflections that help learners find meaning in their learning and achieve deeper thought and better quality in their work. Essential questions meet the following criteria:

  • They stimulate ongoing thinking and inquiry.
  • They’re arguable, with multiple plausible answers.
  • They raise further questions.
  • They spark discussion and debate.
  • They demand evidence and reasoning because varying answers exist.
  • They point to big ideas and pressing issues.
  • They fruitfully recur throughout the unit or year.
  • The answers proposed are tentative and may change in light of new experiences and deepening understanding (McTighe & Wiggins, 2013).”  Read the entire article here.

Walking in their shoes makes all the difference!

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Grant Wiggins has long been an advocate of hearing / seeing from students’ perspectives. During a UbD training with him a few years ago he brought in local students for participants to interview. That small sample of honest insight from a student was powerful for the group.

He recently had a guest post by a teacher who shadowed a student for a couple of days and was shocked by what she learned. As of last week the post had been read over 500,000 times!

“I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!” Continue reading the post here. 

Enduring Understandings, Essential Questions, & Transfer Goals

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There are three components to Understanding by Design (UbD) that occasionally confuse those new to UbD: Essential Questions, Enduring Understandings & Transfer Goals. You can read about each of them here in a very helpful handout titled “UbD in a Nutshell” from Jay McTighe’s site.

On Grant Wiggin’s site he writes:

“An essential question is – well, essential: important, vital, at the heart of the matter – the essence of the issue. Think of questions in your life that fit this definition – but don’t just yet think about it like a teacher; consider the question as a thoughtful adult. What kinds of questions come to mind? What is a question that any thoughtful and intellectually-alive person ponders and should keep pondering?” Read more here.

Multiple sites provide the following definition for enduring understandings:

“Enduring understandings are statements summarizing important ideas and core processes that are central to a discipline and have lasting value beyond the classroom. They synthesize what students should understand—not just know or do—as a result of studying a particular content area. Moreover, they articulate what students should “revisit” over the course of their lifetimes in relationship to the content area.

Enduring understandings:

  1. frame the big ideas that give meaning and lasting importance to such discrete curriculum elements as facts and skills
  2. can transfer to other fields as well as adult life
  3. “unpack” areas of the curriculum where students may struggle to gain understanding or demonstrate misunderstandings and misconceptions
  4. provide a conceptual foundation for studying the content area and
  5. are deliberately framed as declarative sentences that present major curriculum generalizations and recurrent ideas.”     Accessed here.

Transfer Goals 

Transfer goals highlight the effective uses of understanding, knowledge, and skill that we seek in the long run; i.e., what we want students to be able to do when they confront new challenges – both in and outside of school. There is a small number of overarching, long-term transfer goals in each subject area.” Jay McTighe & Grant Wiggins. Accessed here.

More on transfer goals can be found here.


Understanding by Design

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Like many international schools, AAS-Sofia uses Understanding by Design for our curriculum framework. It was selected for a variety of reasons, including that it seemed the perfect marriage for teaching standards with an inquiry approach.

The best overview of UbD is a 13-page white paper available here. Another excellent resource is an article by Jay McTighe and Elliott Seif called Teaching for Meaning and Understanding: A Summary of Underlying Theory and Research.