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The Characteristics of Essential Questions
- Open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
- Thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
- Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. Such a question cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
- Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
- Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
- Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
- Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.
Understandings and Essential Questions
Wiggins, G. P. & McTighe, J. (2013). Essential Questions. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Guiding Questions Versus Essential Questions
Guiding questions are designed to arrive at a single, final answer not really to be answered, but rather “guided” to the answer.
are designed to continue questioning, even when a provisional answer is arrived at that makes sense.
Questions that Lead
Leading questions point learners to a specific place, and have only one answer – or one correct answer. Below are some examples of leading questions:
- What is seven times six?
- What did we say was true of all four-sided shapes?
- Who was the president at the start of the Great Depression?
- What is the chemical symbol for mercury?
- What’s the relative minor key of A major?
- Which letters are vowels? (Wiggins & McTighe, 2013)
There are places for leading questions. Both summative and formative assessment types use them as checks on learners for direct recall, or short-term recall. When used to reinforce factual knowledge, leading questions work effectively. But they do not bring “up” student thinking, and they don’t move them along that critical continuum of higher-order thinking either.
Questions That Guide
Guiding questions are also popular, and typically used in classrooms. Below are examples of guiding questions.
- Is this sentence punctuated properly?
- Why must the answer be less than zero?
- How do we use the “rule of thirds” in photography?
- Can you state Newton’s 2nd Law in your own words?
- When did the main character begin to suspect his former friend?
- What were the four causes of World War I? (This information is found on different pages in the text.)
- Which words tend to be feminine and which masculine in French?
Questions that guide are not open-ended, but they are also broader than leading questions are. Guiding questions do not lead to in-depth inquiry either; rather, they steer students away from inquiry because they are so focused on their ending in one place. Students will often focus to answer a guiding question to their own higher-order detriment, bypassing opportunities for higher-order thinking along the way.
Questions That Hook
Hook questions help to reel students into the learning, especially if it is material they are reluctant to learn (or not thrilled to learn about). Hook questions are clever opening questions designed to inspire interest, creativity, and get students wondering enough about upcoming content that they become more likely (and willing) to dive into it. Hook questions are different from essential questions. Below are two examples of hook questions. See if you can tell how they differ from essential questions (Wiggins & McTighe, Chapter 1, 2013):
- A teacher poses the question: “Can what you eat and drink help prevent zits?” This hook effectively captures students’ interest and launches an exploration of the unit’s broader EQ: “What should we eat?”
- A science teacher in an Alaskan village uses this question to hook his students: “Are we drinking the same water as our ancestors?” Given the cultural reverence for ancestors and the significance of the ocean for survival, this is an elegant opener in the context of his school community. It is coupled with the companion essential question “Where does water come from and where does it go?” to spark ongoing inquiry into the relevant science.
After reading the books in this module, and the online article “What Makes a Question Essential,” by Wiggins & McTighe, 2013, answer the following question in your own words:
What makes a question essential? Draw a comparison to the questions you typically ask in your classroom, and/or the questions you usually see in prepared curriculum for your students.
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