Good Essential Questions
• Thought-provoking, intellectually engaging
• Require higher-order thinking
• About important, transferable ideas
• Raise additional questions, spark inquiry
• Require support and justification
• Recur over time
• Important and timeless
• Elemental or foundational
• Vital or necessary for personal understanding
Why use essential questions?
• Signal that inquiry is the goal of education
• Make it more likely that the unit will be
• Help to clarify and prioritize standards
• Provide transparency for students
• Encourage and model metacognition for students
• Provide opportunities for intra- and
• Support meaningful differentiation
Designing Essential Questions
• By unpacking standards
• Based on skills and strategies
• Overarching topical; topical overarching
• From big ideas/enduring understandings
• From possible or predictable misconceptions
• Around facets of understanding
• Issues and debates
• Complex processes
• Persistent problems and
• Influential theories
• Established policies
• Key assumptions
• Differing perspectives
Identifying Truly Big Ideas
• Does it have many layers and nuances, not obvious to
the naïve or inexperienced person?
• Can it yield great depth and breadth of insight into the
subject? Can it be used throughout K-12?
• Do you have to dig deep to really understand its subtle
meanings and implications even if anyone can have a
surface grasp of it?
• Is it (therefore) prone to misunderstanding as well as
• Are you likely to change your mind about its meaning
and importance over a lifetime?
• Does it reflect the core ideas as judged by experts?
Example Big Ideas in ELAR
• audience and purpose in writing
• a story, as opposed to merely a list of events
linked by “and then…”
• reading between the lines
• writing as revision
• a non-rhyming poem vs. prose
• fiction as a window into truth
• a critical yet empathetic reader
• a writer’s voice
• Important ideas and core processes
• Central to the discipline
• Have lasting value beyond the classroom
• Go beyond facts and skills to larger concepts,
principles, or processes
• Synthesize what students should understand (not
just know or do) as a result of study
• Articulate what students should revisit over
course of lifetime
Worth being familiar with
Important to know and do
• What do you want students to really remember
long after they have forgotten the discrete facts?
• What is your goal for student understanding
based on the standards?
• What is the essence of this particular unit of
• How can you help students make connections?
• How can you help students transfer learning?
Aspects of skill learning
• Key concept
• Purpose and value
• Context of use
• Focus on Big Ideas
• Enduring Understandings: What specific insights
about big ideas do we want students to leave
• What essential questions will frame the teaching
and learning, pointing toward key issues and
ideas, and suggest meaningful and provocative
inquiry into content?
• What should students know and be able to do?
• Asked to stimulate ongoing thinking and inquiry
• Raise more question
• Spark discussion and debate
• Asked and reasked throughout the unit (and
maybe the year)
• Demand justification and support
• “Answers” may change as understanding deepens
• Provide the learning context that anchor unit of
• Are the BIG IDEAS that reside at the heart of the
• Have value beyond the classroom
• Require uncoverage of abstract or often