Writing Effective Essential Questions

Writing Effective
Essential Questions
By: DonReita Nelson, M.Ed.
• To understand what an essential
question is
• To be able to write effective essential
An Essential Question is:
A question that lies at the heart
of a subject or a curriculum and
one that promotes inquiry and
the discovery of a subject.
Essential Questions are critical
drivers for teaching and learning…
• They can help students discover patterns in
knowledge and solve problems.
• They support inductive teaching—guiding students
to discover meaning, which increases motivation to
• They are one of the most powerful tools for helping
students think at more complex levels.
• They engage the personal intellect—something that
traditional objectives usually fail to do.
Essential Questions
• Have no obvious “right” answer
• Raise other important questions, often across
subject-area boundaries
• Address a concept
• Raise other important questions
• Naturally and appropriately recur
• Stimulate critical, ongoing rethinking
• Are framed to provoke and sustain student interest
What is a true friend?
What makes an artist amazing?
In what sense is the body a system?
What is the law of nature, and how is it like or
unlike social laws?
• To what extent is US history a history of
• In what ways do diet and exercise affect health?
• Must heroes be flawless?
• How do effective writers hook and hold their
• How do cultures affect one another?
• Does practice make perfect?
• What is healthy eating? Healthy living?
• How and when do we use mathematics?
• How does something acquire value?
What makes a question “Essential”?
• Continues throughout all our lives
• Refers to core ideas and inquiries within a
• Helps students effectively ask questions and
make sense of important and complex
ideas, knowledge, and know-how
• Engages a specific and diverse set of
Intent, not language, is the key:
• Purpose for asking the question
• How students are to undertake the
• What learning activities and assessments
we expect
Types of Essential Questions
• Overarching: The overall “Big Idea”
• Topical: Unit or lesson specific but still
promotes inquiry
Overarching Essential Questions
• More general, broader
• Point beyond specific topics or skills
• Promote the transfer of understanding
Examples of Overarching E.Q.
• How do a region’s geography, climate, and
natural resources affect the way people live
and work?
• How does technological change influence
people’s lives? Society?
• How does what we measure influence how
we measure?
Examples of Overarching E.Q.
• How do we classify the things around us?
• Do artists have a responsibility to their
audience? To society?
• How does language shape culture?
• Is pain necessary for progress in athletics?
Topical Essential Questions
• Unit or lesson specific - used to guide
individual units or lessons
• Promote inquiry
• Resist obvious answers
• Require explanation and justification
Examples of Topical EQ
• How might Congress have better protected
minority rights in the 1950s & 1960s?
• Should we require DNA samples from every
convicted criminal?
• Is Holden Caulfield a “phony”?
Examples of Topical EQ
• What is the value of place value?
• What is electricity?
• How do we hit with greatest power without
losing control?
Finding Big Ideas
• Unpack the Course of Study Standards
– Circle key nouns, adjectives, & verbs
– Draft implied or stated big ideas based on
those key words.
• Critically analyze the course text
– Work “backward” to determine what big ideas
and/or EQ the text addresses
Making the Connection
Big Idea
Topic or Content
Essential Question
• Objective: The learner will be able to read, respond to,
and critique historically and culturally significant works of
literature in order to understand their importance and
relationship to past and present cultures.
• Overarching EQ:
Does literature primarily reflect culture or shape
• Topical EQ:
What does Romeo and Juliet teach us about
Shakespeare’s view of destiny? How does it
compare to yours?
Tips for Brainstorming Essential Questions
Essential questions combine specific “what” questions
related to a particular theme with open-ended “why” and
“how” questions to develop conceptual thinking and deep
The purpose for essential questioning is to send students on
a search for knowledge toward essential understandings.
Essential questions can apply to specific subject areas or
Add other questions that you feel are important.
Use a combination of specific and open-ended questions to
include the how and why.
Stop covering curriculum and let students uncover essential

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