Guiding Your Curriculum with the Help of Essential Questions

Teachers can plan a unit of study using essential questions as the driving force behind student learning.

By Wendy Haagenson


Using Essential Questions in the Classroom

When you sit down and look at a list of the standards that need to be taught in a school year, it can get rather overwhelming. Some school districts give their teachers a pacing guide with a year’s worth of curriculum laid out. For me, this seems like a mixed blessing. It’s a great tool if you’re required to strictly adhere to the textbooks, or aren’t sure how to create your own curriculum. However, if you are allowed more freedom I highly recommend using essential questions to guide your teaching.

Using Essential Questions to Guide Instruction

Essential questions are a way of teaching in which you state an objective you would like to reach in the form of a question. When writing an essential question, I advise you to begin with the standard you are planning to teach. Often, I will re-write the standard in simple, kid-friendly terms. Then, I turn the statement into a question that I would like my students to be able to answer by the end of the unit, it should ideally should spike students’ curiosity and be engaging. From here, I make a list of everything that a student must know before answering the essential question. Typically, every item on the list becomes a separate lesson. Students are required to give a complex, thoughtful, and well supported answer for each of the essential questions presented during the unit.

Essential Questions in Action

One of California's social studies standards for kindergarten is that “Students understand that being a good citizen involves acting in certain ways.” I would make this standard more kid-friendly by re-writing it to say that, “A good citizen must make the right choices.” If you turned this standard into an essential question it might be, “What choices does a good citizen make?” In order to answer this question, students would first have to understand what a citizen is, what makes someone a good citizen, what a choice is, and finally, what choices a good citizen makes. This unit could take a full week of twenty-minute lessons to complete, but by the end, students should have a good understanding of the concept.

Students might come up with answers like, “A good citizen follows the rules, helps people, and does their job.” This unit could easily precede or follow a unit on community helpers since a good citizen does their job and helps others.  You may find that essential questions not only overlap into other units but into other fields of study.  For example, many science topics may require that students have mastered certain math skills before they can fully understand the concept being taught.

Often students are not taught the answer to the essential question, instead, they are given enough information about the topic so that they can come up with their own answer. Each student may answer the question differently, in fact, there is no right or wrong answer to an essential question as long as the answer is thoughtful and well supported. You may find essential questions are the very thing that your students need to spark their creativity and really get them thinking!