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What are Essential Questions?

Zac Jones

January 24, 2020


Photo by Egor Vikhrev on Unsplash

Whenever you learn something new, there will be questions.

"How do I do that?"

"What do I know and what do I need to know?"

"What should I do when I get stuck?"

The list goes on.. we all have so many questions it can be overwhelming.

But what makes a question essential?

Essential Questions highlight what's important in any content that you are learning. They are the questions that you ask yourself to understand better the content in front of you and connect these ideas to what you have learned in the past. Essential Questions are meant to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions. These questions reach past the surface level and dig into how ideas and understandings are connected. There is a sense of exploration when you start thinking about the questions that you have about a topic.

What are the patterns you notice? Where have you seen the same pattern in a different context? The answer to these questions will often include more questions. There's a progression to them as you go from beginner to expert. In Understanding by Design, there are 7 characteristics of Essential Questions that will help learners progress through content (McTighe and Wiggins, Essential Questions, 3):

  1. Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.

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

  3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, predic- tion. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.

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

  5. Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.

  6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.

  7. Recurs over time; that is the question can and should be revisited again and again.

Content Creation

If you are creating content, unpacking a goal using Essential Questions will keep you focused on the relevant skills and understandings that you will need to show to work towards understanding and accomplishing your goals.

In todays age, there is limitless content and skills to learn which means scoping the content you want to present is becoming more and more important. When you have a goal in mind, what questions do you want learners to wrestle with? These questions can keep you focused on your goal as there should be a limited number for any given goal.

If your goal is to teach how to create an app with React. There are specific answers that you would expect people to know.

What questions did those people ask to get to the answers they hold? They acquired those answers through research, argument, and difference of opinion. All expert knowledge is hard-won through this process. How can you present those answers through questions that will spark research and debate?

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