The Essentialness of Essential Questions

question-diceIt is clear to me that classes function better when learning goals are framed around essential questions and are continually referred to by a teacher throughout a unit of study. This is not a hypocritical post. I readily admit I did not do this enough when I taught. Now that I get the chance to observe many classes a year, I have come to the conclusion that classes often run smoother, have more engaged learners, and are more relevant to students when learning goals and essential questions are tied to each other and are present during lessons. I find that even the simple act of writing these down on a room’s blackboard can help focus instruction and the students in class.

It is one thing to list what students will learn or accomplish during a unit of study (this will still help!). It is another, more powerful idea, to tie these to essential questions. An essential question is a big idea-type question. Essential questions cannot be answered with yes or no and their answers cannot be right or wrong. They can lead to debate and will hopefully spark further inquiry in students.

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Grant Wiggins from Big Ideas, An Authentic Education e-journal

In the many classrooms I get to visit, I find that essential questions can help frame a unit of study by giving students an indication about why the information they are receiving is important. As a teacher, think about using essential questions this way: To answer these imagesquestions you will need to learn _____? This exercise can help focus instruction and demonstrate to students why the information they are pursuing is relevant. To further guide students, it is vital that both the lesson’s objectives and essential questions be made available to them. It sounds like a simple thing, but it can make a HUGE difference in a classroom. If I went back in time, the first change I would make as an instructor is to do this on a more regular basis.

If you are daring, try delivering essential questions and learning goals in a variety of formats. Sure, writing them down on a chalkboard will work, but how about including them on handouts, quizzes, or correspondence with students? How about making an iMovie trailer about them? Here is one I put together that includes two essential questions from our district’s world history curriculum to introduce a  unit on the Renaissance:

Be creative with the questions you ask (many curricula today have essential questions in them) and be creative with how you deliver them to students. Refer to them often as you teach. Have students attempt answers as closure at the end of lessons. Most importantly, do not keep these locked up in a closet with your curriculum. Due to their essentialness, make them available to students every day they are in the classroom.