Enhance Instruction with Essential Questions

Boost higher-level thinking by integrating carefully crafted questions into your plans.

By Dawn Dodson

Student thinking

In the age of Common Core State Standard shifts and next generation assessments, many educators find themselves asking the same question: Is my curriculum aligned, engaging, and encouraging critical thinking skills? That said, we’re all left with the same task: evaluating and revising content to ensure career and college readiness for all learners. One way to enrich instruction and promote higher-level thinking skills is to incorporate essential questions into the study of content. Essential questions may be nothing new to educators, but perhaps the ways in which we create and utilize them can be enhanced in order to give our students one more opportunity to deepen their thinking.

What Is an Essential Question?

Essential questions are often misinterpreted. An essential question is a broad question that can encompass a variety of concepts and skills and can have more than one correct response. With essential questions, the line of questioning moves beyond basic recall and knowledge and stimulates learners to synthesize and evaluate information in order to draw conclusions based on information acquired over the course of a study. It’s the essential, or enduring, knowledge that is questioned.

So, how do you tell the difference between an essential question and other types of questions? Essential questions require more than one sentence, there isn’t one clear answer, and many sources of information are required to formulate a response. With essential questions, our goal is for each individual to ponder how answers are formulated in the first place. Where did all this information come from? And, how do we know it works? Another key point—students’ responses to essential questions should change throughout the course of study as they acquire new information, which causes their thinking to change.

How Do I Create an Essential Question?

The next stage is to correctly construct a question that promotes broad thinking beyond one concept. The following tips will hopefully help to craft quality questions:

  • Ask yourself, “What do students need to understand by the end of this study?” And, “How is this information relevant to their lives?” Tying these two questions together helps to lead us to the “bigger” question, or objective, of our study.
  • Keep it open-ended. We want the “why” and “how” to be explored.
  • Responses to essential questions need to be thought-provoking and lead pupils to ask more questions.
  • Essential questions should trigger both prior knowledge and newly acquired knowledge. The goal is for learners to bend and shape what they know to create a new conclusion.

How Can I Incorporate Essential Questions into My Instruction?

Finally, the way in which we utilize essential questions during instruction is significant in how students respond and use their thinking skills. In my own classroom experiences, introducing the essential question at the beginning of a study can spark thinking and predictions. For example, at the beginning of my annual A Christmas Carol unit, I introduce the following question: How do relationships transform lives? This begins great conversations and predictions of how we will see this come to light in the story. Then, throughout the course of the study, we write responses to the essential question, recording how our thinking changes. Finally, during the final assessment, students are required to incorporate their responses to the essential question into an essay. This allows each individual to present his/her thinking and expand it into a larger piece of writing, bringing it together within a prompt. It requires writers to pull resources and draw conclusions about their learning in a grand finale of thinking. You, too, can use this method with your specific curriculum. The key is to keep the goal in mind—that each learner has an opportunity to think critically, expand and explore knowledge, and make learning relevant to his/her life.

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