What’s So Essential about Essential Questions?
by Dale De Weerd
How does a teacher bridge benchmarks to class instruction?
A recent Master Teaching post noted that benchmarks show teachers what their students need to know and be able to do and measure how far learners have progressed. It is one thing to possess an impressive list of benchmarks, however, and another to successfully apply them to one’s teaching context.
One means for putting benchmarks to work is essential questions!
What is an essential question?
What does the word essential bring to mind? Promoting curiosity about key curricular content, essential questions are course and unit objectives written in question form. They are the “mental Velcro” upon which students attach their learning. Essential questions are answered by unit content (i.e., lessons, activities, assignments, assessments).
Regarding course essential questions, when I was teaching fourth grade in a Christian school, our science curriculum centered on these essential questions throughout the school year: 1) What is science? 2) How do we “do science”? 3) How are Christian scientists different from other scientists? 4) What do we learn about the Creator from studying His creation?
As for unit essential questions, our rocks and minerals unit posed these questions: 1) What makes a rock a rock? 2) How does a rock cycle? 3) What can I learn from my pet rock? 3) How can a person have a heart of stone? 4) How does our Father rock?
What is a quality essential question?
Excellent essential questions . . .
- address a school’s mission, philosophical statements, and benchmarks.
- are student friendly, creatively written, and thought provoking.
- are presented in a logical sequence.
- reflect conceptual priorities.
- are embedded throughout the curriculum.
- are substantial.
- are realistic given the allotted time and grade.
- are distinct.
- can be answered by the students.
- have more than one answer.
- link curricular content, student skills, and assessments.
How does a teacher write and present a set of essential questions?
First, review your school’s mission and philosophy and study a particular course’s benchmarks so that you know what your students need to know and be able to do.
Second, in light of that foundational information and those standards, brainstorm relevant essential questions for you and your students to answer as you proceed through a particular unit. Peruse textbooks, ancillary curriculum resources, and the Word for ideas. Essential question writing can be done by individual teachers or by a grade-level team to promote collaboration and cohesion within a school’s educational program. Aim for several umbrella essential questions for a course, followed by 2-5 questions for each specific unit of study, with at least one question written from the Master Teacher’s perspective whether explicitly or implicitly.
Third, plan the final assessment your students will take upon unit completion. This assessment should challenge students to answer the unit’s essential questions and apply unit skills.
Next, write lessons that will create space for the class to answer the essential questions.
Finally, publish the essential questions. Include them on your school’s curriculum maps if your institution has gone through this process. Note them in parent newsletters or on your syllabus or classroom’s website so that students and/or families can wrestle with the questions in the car and over meals. Post them in the classroom for easy and frequent reference by you and your students and to share with visitors.
Why should you incorporate essential questions?
We have noted that essential questions can bridge a school’s foundational documents and a grade level’s benchmarks to the curriculum.
Do you ever wonder how you and your students are going to cover all of the curriculum available to you? Essential questions focus a unit of study: they help you get rid of non-essential material because you can ignore anything that does not help answer the essential questions.
Do you often feel that you are working harder than your students? Essential questions are a meaningful way for teachers to give more ownership of the learning process to students. Why not give your students opportunities to identify and answer some essential questions on their own? They can work by themselves, with a partner, or in a small group and determine how to share their learning with the class.
Most importantly, essential questions allow you to teach from the Master Teacher’s perspective. Teaching from this standpoint does not automatically happen; it demands intentional, thoughtful integration of the Teacher’s concepts throughout every curricular area.
Essential questions are a meaningful means for pointing to the Master Teacher in the curriculum and a must for getting the most out of benchmarks!
 In a public school setting, the questions might read: 1) What is science? 2) How do we ”do science”? 3) What do we learn about the world from studying science? And 1) What makes a rock a rock? 2) How does a rock cycle? 3) What can I learn from my pet rock? 3) How can a person have a heart of stone? 4) How do people in my life rock?
What’s your perspective?
We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.
- What challenges—if any—do you foresee with implementing essential questions?
- Besides essential questions, what are other ways to link benchmarks to classroom instruction?
- What “course” or “unit” essential questions does the Master Teacher have for you?
Try it out
Design some essential questions for your course and/or the next unit in your textbook. Then, feel free to share your questions with us here.
After growing up and attending college in Michigan, Dale De Weerd spent twenty years as an elementary teacher and principal in California’s Central Valley. Moving in 2011 to the country that consumes many of the Central Valley’s almonds, Dale currently teaches and learns from his students at Ningxia University in Yinchuan, Ningxia. Dale holds an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Dordt College.
I would love to see some examples of essential questions for a skills-based class such as Listening and Speaking.
Thank you for your inquiry, Laura. Here are three resources to get you started: http://www.leeacademy.org/curriculum/ESL.pdf; http://www.mtlaurelschools.org/documents/Curriculum/ESLcurrifix.pdf;
The first two are ESL curriculum documents from schools in Maine and New Jersey, respectively. The third one is a set of World Language questions from one of the authors mentioned at the end of my blog post.