Educators understand that their work has a far-reaching impact beyond the individual lesson plan, activity, unit, class, or even school. The lessons they impart and the thinking skills they help students cultivate are, at their core, designed to give students the foundational skills they need to live the rest of their lives successfully and engagingly.
It can sometimes be hard to keep that big picture in mind when teachers are redesigning their classes. After all, teachers have several course objectives they have to meet, and a limited time to meet them. Essential Questions can help close the gap between the day-to-day instruction and provide lifelong lessons students will need to be truly successful.
What is an Essential Question?
Put simply, it’s a question that gets to the core of a lesson in a way that makes connections and meaning more apparent. There has been a lot more discussion about these Essential Questions since the implementation of Common Core standards. As Boise State professor of education Jeffrey Wilhelm explains, “Essential questions organically inspire the kinds of narrative, informational, and persuasive writing required by the Common Core.”
An Essential Question asks students to think beyond standardized responses and “correct” choices. It instead presses them to not only know information, but to understand it. Examples of Essential Questions run a spectrum from simple to complex across every discipline. A math teacher might simply ask “How do we use math in everyday life?” A health teacher might inquire “How does our own health impact our relationships with other people?”
These questions resist simple yes or no responses. They ask students to make connections, think critically, and come up with an answer that is uniquely their own. For these reasons, Essential Questions are great tools for creating lifelong learners who take their lessons beyond the walls of a single classroom and into an interconnected approach for engaging with life.
Here are some of the ways that Essential Questions break down automated thinking and encourage students to learn how to learn.
They activate prior knowledge
Constructivist education theory teaches us that new knowledge must be rooted in prior knowledge in order to grow. Research has shown again and again that students must be able to connect new material to previous experiences if they are to retain it and apply it.
Essential Questions are just the type of questions to make those prior knowledge connections to new material. When teachers ask Essential Questions (especially at the start of a new lesson or concept), they show students that the ideas are connected to material they already know and understand, giving them a starting place and making them more invested.
They demonstrate interdisciplinary approaches
Essential Questions don’t remain neatly in a disciplinary box. A discussion of why math matters in everyday life can venture into sociology, economics, and engineering. A question about how health impacts relationships ventures into psychology with examples that can come from literature.
In other words, when students answer Essential Questions, they begin to see that the world is not neatly divided into separate disciplines that begin and end with the ringing of a bell. They see that the knowledge they gain in one class translates to another and, by extension, to their lives as a whole.
They break down standardized testing mindsets
While standardized testing can be a good checkpoint for student’s knowledge of key concepts, students can sometimes start to see the world as a series of multiple choice questions. When they view the world through this framework, it can stifle curiosity and keep them from making new connections and breakthroughs.
Essential Questions don’t ask students to find the “right” answers. They ask them to find the intersections between a range of responses and possible perspectives. This teaches them the value of learning outside of standardized testing goals, giving them more flexible strategies for using what they’ve learned.
All of these qualities make Essential Questions a key component of a teaching strategy that produces lifelong learners. Use these profoundly engaging questions to frame your curriculum, and you’ll see the spark of creativity and inquiry come to life.