What Makes a Great Essential Question?

Essential questions should…
•  interest students and matter to them now and in the future.

•  help to create enduring understandings of the disciplinary topic under study.

•  require students to produce meanings and projects and reward them for doing so.

•  require students to make judgments.

•  get to the heart of the matter (for the topic, text, discipline, etc.).

•  possess emotive force, intellectual bite, or edginess.

•  be open-ended and arguable.

•  be linked to data (that is, students will learn content and strategies in pursuit of the inquiry).

•  be concise and clearly stated.


Tips for Revising Essential Questions

Topic: Relationships
Question: Where do our ideas about marriage come from?
Problem: Simple information retrieval
Revision: What makes a good relationship?

Topic: Civil rights
Question: How did we win the fight for civil rights?
Problem: Begs the question
Revision: What are basic human rights and how can they be protected?

Topic: Survival
Question: Why is it bad that animals are going extinct?
Problem: Leading question
Revision: Who survives?

Topic: Identity
Question: Who am I?
Problem: Too broad and generic
Revision: Where do I belong? What makes me me? What shapes my view of the world?


Tips for Generating Questions

• Identify “big ideas” of unit, concept, or discipline, and turn these into questions. A unit on habitats becomes a study of What makes a good home?

• Reframe a required text, topic, or standard so it matters to students: Romeo and Juliet becomes a study of What makes and breaks relationships?

• Consider the heart of the matter: What is the true importance of this curricular topic? Why do you love teaching it? Why is it in the curriculum in the first place? A unit on narrative becomes Why do people tell stories?

• Look around the community for issues that intersect with the topic. All inquiry connects the present with the past and future, or to put it another way, it connects what we already know to our current reality to possible applications in the future. In my community in Maine, a unit on fish becomes What can we do personally and globally to protect fish and lobsters?

• Ask ethical/moral questions. What should we pursue? What should we do with the knowledge we have? A unit on social issues becomes What is our responsibility to others?