How to write an Essential
What is an Essential Question?
• Students have to think critically to answer an essential
question. Instead of simply looking up answers, they conduct
research and create an original answer. An essential question:
provokes deep thought.
solicits information-gathering and evaluation of data.
results in an original answer.
helps students conduct problem-related research.
makes students produce original ideas rather than predetermined
– may not have an answer.
– encourages critical thinking not just memorization of facts.
Why write an Essential Question?
Links all facts and activities to help students
understand the real-world connections.
Helps to answers the questions that students
– Why do I have to do this?
– When will I ever use it?
– What does it matter if I know this?
• Essential Questions are found at the top of
Bloom's Taxonomy (Bloom, 1954).
• They require readers to:
– EVALUATE (make a thoughtful choice between
options, with the choice based upon clearly stated
– SYNTHESIZE (invent a new or different version)
– ANALYZE (develop a thorough and complex
understanding through skillful questioning).
Depth of Knowledge
• Depth of Knowledge is about what comes after the verb in your
knowledge and skills.
• Students will know that…
• Students will be able to…
• Dr. Norman Webb of the University of Wisconsin-Madison
developed a hierarchy of content knowledge that is useful for
analyzing the content and performance expectations we have
• Depth of knowledge refers to the complexity of knowledge
and reasoning expected of students by the benchmarks.
• It is critical that we understand the depth of knowledge
required of our students by the benchmarks if we are to
design curriculum, instruction, and assessment that fully
meets those expectations.
What is Depth of Knowledge?
The degree of depth or complexity of
knowledge reflected in the standards/learning
expectations and assessments
How deeply a student needs to understand
the content for a given response/assessment
DOK is about intended outcome, not difficulty.
DOK is a reference to the complexity of
mental processing that must occur to answer
a question, perform a task, or generate a
Webb’s DOK Model
Level 1: Recall
Recall, recognition; skill, behavior, or sequence of behaviors learned through practice and
Level 2: Skill/Concept
Engagement of some mental processing beyond recalling; the use of information or
conceptual knowledge; requires making some decisions regarding how to approach a
question or problem
Level 3: Strategic Thinking
More sophisticated reasoning and analysis; deep understanding; students are required to
solve problems and draw conclusions
Level 4: Extended Thinking
Requires integration of knowledge from multiple sources and the ability to represent
knowledge in a variety of ways; usually requires work over an extended period of time
• Level 1 — Identify the tree.
• Level 2 — Explain the function of the
• Level 3 — Explain how a drought might
affect the growth of the tree.
• Level 4 — Design an investigation of
seedling growth to determine the best
fertilizer for this type of tree.
Webb’s Depth of Knowledge
Essential vs. Traditional Questions
• Not Essential:
– ―What is it like to live in Hong Kong?"
– Which city in Southeast Asia is the best place to live?
• Not Essential:
– ―What is AIDS?"
– Which serious disease most deserves research funding?
Types of Questions
– What are some sustainable solutions to
environmental problems in your
neighborhood, and how could they be
• What if questions are hypothetical, questions
which ask you to use the knowledge you have
to pose a hypothesis and consider options.
– "What if the Cultural Revolution had never
– "What if students didn’t have to go to school?‖
• Should questions make a moral or practical
decision based on evidence.
– "Should we clone humans?―
– "Should we discontinue trade with countries that
abuse human rights?"
• Why questions ask you to understand cause
and effect. "Why" helps us understand
relationships; it helps us get to the essence of
– "Why do people abuse drugs?"
– "Why is the death rate higher in one Third World
country than another?"
“Skinny” vs. “Fat” Questions
• What are Fat Question?
– Open-ended questions, which can be argued and
supported by evidence.
– Skinny Question: "When was the Declaration of
– Fat Question: "What would have happened had
we not signed it?‖
How would you…?
What would result if…?
How would you describe…?
How does…compare with…?
What is the relationship between…?
What would happen if…?
How could you change…?
How would you improve…?
How do you feel about…?
Why do you believe…?
What is your opinion of…?
What choice would you have made…?
What would you do differently?
Why do you feel…?
How would you go about solving the problem…?
If you were in this position what would you do?
Why do you/don’t you support…?
What could improve…?
How do you write an Essential
1. Consider the focus of the unit or lesson activity:
1. Substance abuse, drug addiction, legal & illegal drugs
(use your inspiration mind map)
2. Ideas for a good essential question:
1. May stem from your particular interests in a topic (e.g.
What makes a drug ―good‖?, community resources (How
is China dealing with substance abuse?)
2. Begin with the 6 typical queries that newspaper articles
address: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?
3. From these questions formulate your essential question.
4. Use: Which one? How? What if? Should? Why?