Any one who has spent any time with a two year old knows the sound of an essential question. "Why do we have to say please? Why would you want to go there? How come we can't have a dog?" You get the idea. These are the questions that take time to answer. They cause us to stop, reflect, and think about how we want to respond. "Because I said so," doesn't always work.
Essential questions are hard to answer, and while they require higher levels of thinking, they also spark our curiosity and sense of wonder. We really want to know the answer because it matters. A good essential question has no one obvious "right" answer. Sometimes these questions can take a lifetime to answer, and they often recur throughout our learning.
When we use these questions to guide learning in the classroom, students must construct their own answers and make meaning from the information that they gather. They create insight. They aren’t found in the textbook or through a Google search.
As teachers work to “upgrade” a unit of study, they are starting with writing a great essential question. It is a fantastic way to engage students in real life applied problem solving. They require students to apply skills and perspectives that are multidisciplinary, mixing math and language with science and history. A good question raises other good questions and can be used to link ideas and units of study together while on a quest to find an answer.
As our teachers create and re-imagine their units, an essential question helps guide the process. Wiggins and McTighe write, “In framing essential questions, we must first ask what our intent is. If we don’t know why we pose it, how we intend students to tackle it, and what we expect for learning activities and assessments, we don’t really know what we want. Essential questions keep us focused on inquiry as opposed to just answers.”
Before, teachers may have started with a research project about frog habitats. By starting with an essential question such as, "Why is there no place like home?", students are making new connections to the idea of habitats and what makes them perfect for frogs. They are also able to weave that idea of home and habitats into other areas of curriculum such as literature and history.
Through project based learning, design thinking, or more traditional teaching strategies, starting with an essential question will grab students attention and give them a reason to explore resources, searching for their idea of an answer. The answers may all be different, but the journey will be one of learning for all.
By Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach