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2014-12-04 Steve Gardiner Book Review: Essential Questions

If our goal as teachers is to deepen student understanding and increase student ability to take ideas and processes outside the school and apply them to real world activities, we need to support their thinking with Essential Questions, according to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.

Their book, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (ASCD, 2013) outlines their approach to doing exactly that. Essential questions are questions that cannot be answered in a sentence or with a single answer. They are questions that are designed to stimulate student thought and promote close examination of ideas by students whether they are alone, in small groups, or in full-classroom settings. The authors explain that by “tackling such questions. Learners are engaged in uncovering the depth and richness of a topic that might otherwise be obscured by simply covering it” (p. 3).

For example, an essential question in the language arts area might be, “What do good readers do, especially when they don't comprehend a text?” In math, an essential question could include “When and why should we estimate? In science we might ask, “Why and how do scientific theories change?” In world languages, a good question would be, “How much cultural understanding is required to become competent in using a language?”


Essential questions are inquiries that can, and perhaps should, be returned to throughout the school year. Each return may lead to deeper meaning as students develop and build on previous understandings. One part of this practice is that students are not only challenged to struggle with the essential questions, but they see what essential questions are.


As McTighe and Wiggins argue, “Essential questions do more than focus the learning for students and teachers. They specifically model the kinds of thinking that students need to emulate and internalize if they are to learn to high levels independently. Put simply, the essential questions model for students the kind of questioning they need to be able to do on their own” (p. 23).


One of the points that the authors make regards the current focus on implementing the Common Core State Standards into lesson plans. It is possible to use the ideas from CCSS as the basis to create essential questions that support the standards. For example, in language arts, standards at several levels support understanding the elements of good writing. From those standards, there are several essential questions that could be asked such as “What makes a great story? or “ How do effective writers hook and hold their readers?”


To use essential questions in a classroom, McTighe and Wiggins recommend a four-step process:


  1. Introduce a question designed to cause inquiry. These questions should be thought-provoking and subject to examination through research, text study, or classroom activity.

  2. Elicit varied responses and question those responses. Teachers should seek answers and provide an ongoing look into the possible answers, bringing up strengths and weaknesses in ideas and how they fit into the essential question.

  3. Introduce and explore new perspectives. As the conversation develops, teachers can track and explore ideas and thoughts as they arise. Comparisons and contrasts of ideas may help clarify where the discussion is going.

  4. Reach tentative closure. Students can summarize the discussion and reach an understanding which may then be open to further discussion and adjustment at a later date. (p. 45)

The authors summarize their main point well by stating, “The whole idea of essential questions is to signal that the question, not the answer, is what matters” (p. 86). Teachers who follow their guidelines could make significant changes in the way questions are handled in the classroom.

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