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Essential Elements for Essential Questions

6 tips for designing powerful questions that have a lasting impact on learning.

A teacher hopes to trigger moments of learning in the classroom that have limitless potential. When information is learned in isolation it lacks meaning. When knowledge is gained through inquiry and connectivity, it resounds long after it is introduced. Crafting and utilizing essential questions that encompass the big ideas allows for a ripple effect of continual contemplation. With these 6 design tips, teachers will be well on their way to incorporating all the essential elements into essential questions.

Essential Questions are open-ended.

The very nature of an essential question requires it to be open-ended. When a simple yes or no response is all that’s needed, it can tend to bring a close to continual thinking. This creates learning in isolation and gives students the feeling they can disregard and move along too quickly. When open-ended queries are posed, the response time and capacities are limitless.

Essential Questions encourage connectivity.

While you may be creating questions for a history class, devising questions with cross-curricular implications can be really powerful. When the concepts close reading and writing that are learned in ELA carry over to studies in history and science, or a study of conflict in history can be related to those in a novel or a molecular reaction- wow!

Essential Questions have real-life applications.

A great essential question reaches far beyond the classroom. When students can apply the underlying principles that are the basis of the questions to scenarios and situations that occur in the outside world, learning is really impactful. For example, that classroom study invoking thought on How conflict creates change? could allow students to have a reassurance and understanding when conflict is encountered in the workplace and/or personal situations.

Essential Questions produce additional inquiry.

The most consistent quality found in effective learners is curiosity. What do curious learners do? They ask questions; they dig deeper. When an intriguing over-arching question prompts additional questioning, students are able to explore new ideas that may never have been a consideration before an essential question was introduced.

Essential Questions have evolving answers.

By their very essence, essential questions can transcend grade levels. It’s the responses to the questions that will evolve over time. While contemplating What do good readers do? in kindergarten, responses may involve how a book is held, turning pages properly, following print, etc. That same essential question still applies in middle school when students are close reading, posing questions in margins, identifying figurative language, etc. A single essential questions can have an evolving impact during a student’s K-12 journey.

Essential Questions have a broad scope.

Much like the concept of open-endedness that was previously shared, essential questions should have a broad range. Rather than posing questions based on a singular person or event in history, essential questions should be based on the qualities and concepts found within innumerable historical figures and instances. It’s not about tackling a single piece of literature but about how to respond to a variety of texts presented. By removing the specific titles and designations of a lesson or unit, the production of thoughts and connections between a broader base of concepts that include cross-curricular and cross grade level potential can be achieved.

So when responding to the question What do good teachers do?, design and incorporate thought-provoking essential questions would be at the top of the list. As a teacher’s career progresses the answers to this query will evolve and possess a connectivity among anything and everything that is taught. When creating essential questions, these 6 takeaway tips will ensure that the lessons in the classroom have a lifetime impact.

If you enjoyed the thoughts and ideas shared here, check out the trainings and tools (for teachers and for families) that we offer.


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