Using Essential Questions to Engage Student Inquiry

Jay McTighe is an accomplished author, having co-authored 14 books, including the award-winning and best-selling Understanding by Design series with Grant Wiggins. His books have been translated into ten languages. Jay has also written more than 35 articles and book chapters, and been published in leading journals, including Educational Leadership (ASCD) and Education Week.

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The key to teaching for understanding is to foster ongoing inquiry into important “big ideas.” A natural way to actively engage students in such inquiry is to use a few Essential Questions (EQs) to frame a curriculum unit. The explicit use of EQs sends a powerful signal that learning something deeply is about making meaning, not simply the acquisition of factual knowledge and discrete skills.

More specifically, the deliberate use of Essential Questions:

  • makes it more likely that a unit is intellectually engaging;
  • helps to clarify and prioritize standards for teachers and learners;
  • engages learners in developing and deepening their understanding of “big ideas;”
  • promotes “higher-order” thinking and meta-cognition by students;
  • encourages students to transfer their learning to new situations;
  • provides opportunities for intra- and inter-disciplinary connections; and
  • supports personalized learning.

So, what makes a question “essential?” Let’s look at some examples and then generalize:

  • How do I know what to believe in what I read, hear or view?
  • What truths can we learn from fiction?
  • What are the limits of (this) mathematical/statistical model?
  • Whose “story” is this?
  • Nature or nurture?
  • What is the author/artist trying to convey?
  • How might I sound more like a native speaker?
  • “No pain, no gain.” Agree?

What did you notice about these examples? How do they differ from questions seeking a factual answer? In our book, Essential Questions: Opening Doorways to Understanding (ASCD, 2013), Grant Wiggins and I propose that a question is essential if it meets the following criteria:

1) is open-ended; i.e., it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.

Essential questions yield inquiry and argument — a variety of plausible (and arguable) responses, not straightforward facts that end the matter. They should uncover rather than cover (up) the subject’s controversies, puzzles, and perspectives.

2) is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.

Essential Questions work best when they are designed and edited to be thought-provoking to students, engaging them in sustained, focused inquiries. Such questions often involve the counter-intuitive, the visceral, the whimsical, the controversial, the provocative. Is the Internet dangerous for kids? Are censorship and democracy compatible? Does food that is good for you have to taste bad?

3) calls for high-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction.

It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone (or via a Google search). Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions, including thoughtful student questions, not just pat answers. They serve as doorways into focused yet lively inquiry and research. They are intended to result in conclusions drawn by the learner, not recited facts.

4) points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.

Essential questions reflect the most historically important issues, problems and debates in a field of study. Is history inevitably biased? What is a proof? Nature or nurture? By examining such questions, students are engaged in thinking like an expert (i.e., “doing” the subject).

5) raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.

Thought-provoking essential questions are naturally generative. They lead to other important questions within, and sometimes across, subject boundaries. For example: In nature, do only the strong survive? leads to other questions and inquiries into human biology and the physics of physiology. What do we mean by “strong?” Are insects strong (since they are survivors)?

6) requires support and justification, not just an answer.

Essential questions are intended to elicit a variety of plausible (and arguable) responses. Students are expected to provide reasons and evidence. Thus, teachers pose follow-up prompts; e.g., Why?, What’s your reasoning? Who agrees? Who disagrees? What’s another way of viewing this?

7) recurs over time; i.e., the question can and should be re-visited again and again.

These are questions that are not answerable with finality in a single lesson or brief sentence – and that’s the point. The same important questions get asked and re-asked throughout one’s learning and in the history of the field. For example: What makes a great book great? Are the Harry Potter novels great books? can be productively examined and re-examined by first graders as well as college students. Over time, student responses become more sophisticated, nuanced, and well-reasoned.

To learn more about the design and use of Essential Questions, check out these resources:

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