Teaching for Understanding
The Importance of Essential Questions
"Questions and questioning may be the most powerful technologies of
Jamie McKenzieBeyond Technology
In Corvallis, Phil Leonardiís classes inquire into how and why the
physical and cultural landscape has changed through time. In Ronan,
Christa Umphreyís classes are organized around these questions: How did
our community and society change in the 1960s? How was the Mission Valley
influenced by social forces in the 1960s? Why do people rebel? And in
Simms, various strands of the project led by teacher Dorothea Susag are
held together by this overarching question: How do popular myths obstruct
our understanding of underlying realities?
Such questions meet the criteria for essential questions that Grant
Wiggins described In Understanding by Design:
1. They point to the heart of a discipline such as history or
science. They are the "big ideas" framed as questions. They are essential
because they point toward core issues in the different disciplines and
lead toward enduring understandings. The big ideas at the heart of
literary studies, for example, include the belief that our opinions should
be based on reason and evidence and that through vicarious experience we
can expand our knowledge and understanding.
2. They are arguable. They have no obvious right answers. They can
be pondered, explored, discussed, and lived with.
3. They recur in professional work and in life, because they grow
out of important conceptual and philosophical issues.
4. They engage student interest and can function as a doorway to
Teachers often begin unit planning by listing the activities that will
be done. If these activities arenít at some point selected and shaped by
three or four overarching questions, the unit will inevitably lack focus.
The key questions frame the sequence of activities and they provide
structure to the lessons, the field work and note taking, and the
culminating scholarly products through which students exhibit their
Project-based teaching easily degenerates into a series of disconnected
activities. When students experience a unit as a smorgasbord, they often
have trouble understanding the big ideas the unit should have uncovered.
"Why are we doing this?" they wonder. Faced with a series of activities,
they may not be particularly interested in learning what records are kept
in courthouses or government archives. But when they can be engaged in a
few key questions, the use of such resources becomes easier to see.
Organizing instruction around essential questions makes the unitís
intellectual challenge more clear, more coherent, and more engaging for
students, so questions that lead to big ideas should be posted in the
room, they should recur in class discussions, and they should appear at
the top of handouts.
Though most teachers pose lots of questions, many are leading questions
rather than essential questions. Leading questions can be answered by
finding the facts. They are intended to uncover content, or to prompt
recall, or to get facts on the table. "Who started this town and when?"
Often, they are merely rhetorical or thinly disguised statements. Though
such questions can be useful, a steady stream of them stifles
thoughtfulness and engaged inquiry.
Just as good stories raise questions in the listenerís mind but delay
providing answers, good teaching often introduces important questions that
will not be answered right away. To create a sense of anticipation and to
help them make sense out of the sequence of activities, students should
encounter the big ideas and the overarching questions as early in the unit
as possible. Event can follow event, as naturally as a story unfolds.
Itís true that the essential questions are sometimes too abstract and
inaccessible to "hook" students at the beginning, so more specific unit
questions can be used to organize particular content and inquiry. The
essential question, "Who is a friend?" might lead to a unit question, "In
A Separate Peace, is Gene a true friend of Phineausí?"
Of course, the overarching questions wonít work well as research
questions for individual writing projects. They are far too big for that.
Rather, they provide the organizing motive for the entire class, driving
the readings and discussions. When students begin forming their own
research questions, the essential and unit questions serve as the
background and context for their narrower inquiries. While the class may
think together about the essential question, "Why do people rebel?" an
individual student might interview one person who protested the Vietnam
War, not attempting to provide a comprehensive answer to the big question
but shedding light on one aspect of it.
The main reason all this matters is that students need to wrestle with
big ideas, but big ideas are seldom learned through lectures. Instead,
they come to be understood by being explored, questioned, taken apart and
put back together, used, reorganized, and confirmed. To reach
understanding, students need to personalize the questions, sharing
examples and experiences that bring the questions to life.
Without engaging big ideas through such active inquiry, most students
will end up with a hodgpodge of opinions and cliches rather than knowledge
and understanding. Teachers need to do more than state what is known. They
need to design inquiries that allow students to see how knowledge is
developed and upon what evidence it is based.
Questions and questioning are the tools that lead to insight and
Here are suggestions for essential questions:
Whose story is it? From what point of view is this document or textbook
What is friendship? Who are your true friends?
What is the relationship between popularity and greatness in
Is there such a thing as a typical "American character?" A typical
Why did (do) people come to the New World? To Montana?
What is the American Dream (is it fact or fiction)?
How has changing technology changed society?
What effect does the "global economy" have on Americans?
When did the "global economy" begin?
What is a hero?
What is the role of government?
What is the role of leadership during times of great change?
What is freedom? Who is most free?
Can societies survive without enemies?
How do needs of the individual conflict with the needs of society?
How are equality, liberty, and justice related?
How do I find beauty? What is beautiful? Why is beauty important?