Mastering the art of writing essential questions is a worthwhile pursuit for any teacher. One of the essential shifts in modern learning is students becoming creators of knowledge. This means moving from answering the questions to questioning the answers. It’s about the quest of pursuing an answer to a question that isn’t easily answered. This is, of course, the essence of an essential question.

A good essential question is central to any lesson. It’s important when writing essential questions to inspire deep levels of thinking. They must foster a desire to discover the truth behind the question. We want to make the student excited to go on that journey.

Essential questions explore relevant real-world issues and inspire students to create unique solutions. They also do it within the context of the required curriculum. We want students to find the answers and discover the unknown, and then learn more from that.

Keeping it Simple

The simplest way to define an essential question is to call it an open question. It cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ or being labelled true or false. If you can Google the answer or respond in a brief manner, it doesn’t inspire intense investigation or creative output. That’s how you know it isn’t an essential question!

Essential questions are tailored to the age and maturity of the students. The questions should provide opportunities for extension and enrichment while meeting curricular needs.

Writing Essential Questions: A Rock-Solid Roadmap

Writing essential questions is actually easy once you understand the concepts. Once you have a place to start, off you go. It’s a fun and interesting adventure.

It’s intriguing to think about all the possible solutions that can hide within an essential question. What could they inspire students to create? This element of creating something meaningful is how we connect students to their learning.

Being succinct is important with your EQ. It’s just one single question that will drive your whole unit. Make it count!

It should be clear to the teacher and the learners the significance of the question. When writing essential questions and scaffolding the learning process, the teacher and students should be able to articulate:

  • Why they answered the question
  • Why the concepts are important
  • Why it’s important to them as individuals and the wider community

Here are 6 quick considerations for writing essential questions. These will help you as you move along in the process. The focus of each point is summed up in an EQ of its own.

Start with standards

The best place to start is with your curriculum. Fundamentally, it’s what we’re responsible for teaching. It’s also what students are responsible for learning. It’s not just the best place to start, it’s really the only place!

That said, why not use what you’re passionate about in that curriculum? Chances are you’ve thought about certain topics a lot. That puts you in a position to write some great questions about them. Search your objectives and jot some ideas down for workshopping.

Guiding EQ: What curricular connection do I want to make with my essential question?

Have a clear challenge

Your essential question should always present some kind of challenge or problem. That’s what students must tackle in order to learn the objectives. Having a clear challenge will help them take ownership of their learning.

Guiding EQ: What is the specific problem or challenge I want students to face in this question?

Have suitable projects in mind

Make sure your question gives students a need to develop a product/process as a solution. They would then apply that to the problem or challenge. These project descriptions won’t appear in the actual question. Do form the question with them in the back of your mind, though.

Guiding EQ: How can students meet the challenge of this EQ using creativity and ingenuity?

Offer collaborative opportunities

Whenever possible, guide students towards working together. Let them face challenges and support each other in problem-solving processes. This can include working with real and virtual online partners.

Guiding EQ: What kinds of problems would require students to work together in groups?

Stretch imaginations

Remember, any question that can be answered with a simple Web search isn’t essential. Devise a question that stretches their imaginations. Keep in mind the words of the late Grant Wiggins. “What is a question that any thoughtful and intellectually-alive person ponders and should keep pondering?”

Guiding EQ: How can I create curiosity and inspire a knowledge quest with my EQ?

Play within your limits

Always keep in mind your timeframe and budgetary considerations. Consider what technology you have available for students to use.

Guiding question: Can these projects be completed within a specific budget/timeframe using the technology we have available?

Resources for Essential Questions

  1. Grant Wiggins: What is an Essential Question?
  2. Tools for Understanding Essential Questions
  3. Genius Hour Essential Question Generator
  4. A Questioning Toolkit
  5. 25 Essential Questions


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