Asking Essential Questions to Inspire Lifelong Learning

By Megan Davenport, Rubicon International

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How much do you remember from your middle school science class? What about your high school English or History classes?

I have various memories from these courses, like writing a screenplay or using Punnett squares to predict whether or not genes will be inherited by various Sesame Street characters. But, for the life of me, I can’t remember anything about my 9th grade history class… except that my teacher had a great sense of humor.

Why is it that certain concepts, ideas, and activities stick with us years later, while others quickly fade away?

One way that teachers can help students internalize and retain learning is by writing engaging and thought-provoking essential questions. These questions are posed throughout a unit of instruction to help students make connections and see the big picture. They get at the heart of learning to connect academic content with real-world application.

Though I don’t remember the specifics, my middle school science teacher inspired us with the question, “What makes us who we are?” For a 14-year-old desperately searching for the answers– looking at genetics and thinking about who I am, how I got to be that way, and why I am different than my classmates– the question itself made the learning stick. Do I need to remember the specifics of the Punnett square? Probably not, but I do remember it because the essential question, and resulting conversations, resonated with me (the engaging activity with Sesame Street characters didn’t hurt either).

When we are busily grading, prepping materials for the next day, and trying to make sure we cover everything we are supposed to cover, it is hard to keep sight of the big picture. This is why creating unit-level information, including essential questions, is so important. If we, as teachers, get caught up in the day-to-day, how can we expect our students to see beyond the homework they have tonight and the test they have next week?

Essential questions help students make connections and see the big picture.

Characteristics of Essential Questions

  • Open-ended
  • Debatable- students should be able to have a conversation and share varying opinions
  • Stimulating- mentally engaging and thought-provoking
  • Recurring- the ideas should be broad and important enough to be addressed multiple times throughout the year, and across multiple years
[Click on the 4 tabs below for more on Essential Questions]

ELA

  • What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
  • How can stories set in another place or time still relate to me?
  • To what extent can we be sure that our online research is accurate?

Math

  • How can we apply the math that we learn in the classroom to our real lives?
  • Why might we need to recognize patterns in our world?
  • How can we predict trends that help plan for the future?

Social Studies

  • What is a community?
  • Can a leader determine what is best for the whole?
  • How might the historian’s background, bias, and perspective impact history?

Science

  • How does scientific thinking change over time?
  • Why might scientific data be biased or unrepresentative?
  • How does studying science help us understand change?

The Arts

  • How do artists choose tools, techniques, and materials to express their ideas?
  • To what extent can we learn about a culture or society based on their artwork?
  • How can we use design principles to organize ideas?

World Languages

  • Why isn’t a dictionary enough?
  • How can I use my existing communication skills to learn a new language?
  • How can we express our thoughts and feelings with others if we do not speak the same language?

Essential questions are over-arching and help students make connections and see the big picture. But what about the unit-specific “guiding” questions that are still important for students to grapple with? These questions could be paired with a corresponding essential question. For example:

EQ: How does conflict produce change?

  • What were the causes and effects of World War II?
  • What led to US involvement in World War II?
  • How is our life different today because World War II?

In this case, students will learn about World War II within the larger context of “conflict” throughout history. This overarching essential question might be spiraled throughout this history course, and it should even come up across multiples courses and grades.

Check out more “Essential vs. Unit Question” examples from Intel Teach

#1: Question with intention

  • What type of answer are you looking for with your question?
  • How can the tone affect the question?
  • Does it invite the recipient to answer it?
  • Does it align to Bloom’s Taxonomy or Depth of Knowledge levels?

#2: Allow for multiple, open-ended answers

  • Could the question be made plural? For example:
    • Why do we have stereotypes?  vs. Why do you stereotype?
    • What are some possible reasons for…?
  • Does it invite creative responses from students? For example:
    • What hunches do you…?
    • In what other ways could….?
    • What might be…?

#3: Check for student-friendliness

  • Is it written at the appropriate level?
  • Will it interest the students?
  • Could it span multiple grades?

How can Essential Questions be used in the classroom?

  • Introduce a new unit with a discussion around your essential question(s)
  • Refer back to the essential questions every day/week to see if kids have changed their opinions/want to adjust their conversation based on new learning
  • Have a class debate with the essential questions as a prompt
  • Share essential questions with parents and encourage dinner table conversation around them
  • Watch this Teaching Channel Video

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