Essential Questions for the Curious Classroom
Shambhavee Sharma
4 min read

What are essential questions?

Essential questions are tributaries of the big ideas of the unit that spark deep thinking and inquiry. Just like a tributary flows into a larger river, these questions merge into a larger field of inquiry, deepening channels of understanding that students engage with along the way. 

These questions aid and drive students’ meaning making as they ponder, debate, discuss, edit, and meditate on them. The purpose of essential questions is not related to the answers or even having a definite or ‘correct’ one. Rather, their value lies in the thinking they stimulate. Needless to say, essential questions hold a very important place in planning as well as classroom learning.

Differences between essential and non-essential questions

Most classrooms are filled with questions that drive engagement – they get students to respond thoughtfully, think quickly, be alert, revise learning – and maintain momentum in the proceedings of the classroom. These questions are momentary and often unrepeated. These are non-essential questions.

The following table is from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ book, The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units, and highlights the differences between essential and non-essential questions –

Essential questions how-tos: Strategies for the curious classroom

Essential questions are more action than theory. They are potent when formulated well, and absolutely powerful when put in action in the classroom.

Here are some ways to bring essential questions to life in your classroom –

1. Make essential questions visually available –

Visual methods such as putting essential questions up and around the classroom (and invoking them consistently) make them constantly accessible and ensure that students are frequently thinking about them. Charts and lists on whiteboards can serve this purpose, and students can share the responsibility of recognizing and making essential questions visible in the classroom.

2. Use them for the W of WHERETO –

The acronym WHERETO is used by educators around the world while planning learning experiences in their units. It allows educators to plan keeping in mind student engagement.

When essential questions are posed at the beginning of a unit, they can become a way of signalling to students where the unit is going to take them, and can supplement the ‘W’ of WHERETO. For example, discussing the question ‘What can we learn from the past?’ at the beginning of a unit would signal that the past experiences cited in the unit would be looked at from the lens of the lessons they carry. The discussion could then bring to the fore ideas that would be used to make important connections later.

3. Answer student responses with questions

This is a method that many teachers swear by, where teachers respond to student responses during a discussion on an essential question with questions that gently lead them in one direction. For example, the following question from a student – ‘why should we study stories from time periods that don’t even relate to us?’ could be responded to with the question ‘what message would you want to pass on to people who live 5 (or 50, 100, or 200) years from now?’ This would probe the student to think about messages that seem important and why anybody would want to pass on what they think is important or interesting. Students are therefore led to construct meaning rather than receive it.

4. Use them as creative writing prompts and group discussion topics

Embedding essential questions within various aspects of classroom activities – such as journal, blog or essay prompts, group discussions, or as assignment questions – ensures deep engagement. The writing work from these prompts can be extended to allow for cross-pollination of ideas and animated discussion, by dividing students into groups or pairs and having them discuss each others’ answers to the essential questions. Debates, group discussions, and socratic seminars can also revolve around essential questions.

5. Make them personal for students

Essential questions that relate ideas to students’ lives or challenge their assumptions can manifest more intense inquiry and brainstorming, as they give students a personal stake in the discussion. An example of such an essential question would be,  ‘What should I do when the text doesn’t make any sense?’, and ‘What strategies do I have for managing setbacks?’

6. Set a safe space to engage

Reminding students consistently that there is no wrong answer and that the essential question at hand is about the process, will encourage them to inquire more freely and make meaning authentically. Similarly, students can be told that they can choose to engage with certain questions and let go of others. Teachers can also create a safe space for students by modelling and working through mistakes.

7. Widening the medium for giving or seeking answers

Students can be asked to answer some essential questions in creative ways, for example by using drawings, social media, debates, songwriting or musical composition, games, and concept maps.

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