How To Use Essential Questions In Your Lesson Design

The Right Way To Implement Essential Questions

by Grant Wiggins, Ph.D,

We had a delightful visit to The School of the Future in New York City the other day. Lots of engaged kids, a great blend of instruction and constructivist work, and an obvious intellectual culture. And as the picture illustrates, everywhere we went we also saw helpful visual reminders of the big ideas and essential questions framing the work we were watching: School of the Future staff have long been users of UbD tools and ideas.

But far too often over the years, I have seen plenty of good stuff posted like this – but no deep embedding of the Essential Question (EQ) into the unit design and lessons that make it up.  Merely posting the EQs and occasionally reminding kids of it is pointless: the aim is to use the question to frame specific activities, to provide perspective and focus, to prioritize the course, and to signal to students that, eventually, THEY must – on their own – pose this and other key questions. (Note: I am not criticizing what we saw and heard at SoF, rather using this teachable moment to raise an issue that needs addressing by almost all faculty using our work.)

How Essential Questions Are Commonly Used

Let’s start with a simple example from my own teaching. The EQ for the unit: Who sees and who is blind? The readings: The Emperor’s New Clothes, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Oedipus the King. Students are instructed to take notes around the EQ and other questions that arise related to it (e.g. Why do people deceive themselves?). We alternate between small-group discussions of the previous night’s reading, Socratic Seminar on the readings with the whole class, some mini-lessons on reading and note-taking skills, and a teacher-led de-briefing of what worked, what didn’t in Seminar as well as a discussion of confusing points in the texts. The final assessment? An essay on the EQ.

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At every turn, in other words, the EQ looms large in the unit. Students are not only encouraged to keep pondering it across each reading, but they take notes on the question and routinely remind one another that this question is the focus.

This is far different than what we typically see in walk-throughs where EQs are being used. The only person that keeps referring to the EQ is the teacher; the main use of the question is by teachers in which they point out “answers” to the EQ. Rarely is the EQ central to the assessment – in part, because all too often the EQ is too convergent and has the right answer that the teacher wants learned and understood. Almost never does there appear to be a plan whereby the question goes from the teacher’s control to the students’ control.

All well and good in English, Grant; what about math?

Same thing. Georg Polya 50 years ago provided a fantastic set of EQs at the heart of genuine problem-solving in math:

What is the unknown?

What are the data?

What is the condition?

Do you know a related problem?

Have you seen the problem before?

Could you restate the problem?

Can you check the result?

Can you derive the answer differently?

Can you use the result, or the method, for some other problem?

Here is how Polya described their use:

“There are two aims which the teacher may have in view when addressing his students a question or a suggestion…: First, to help the student to solve the problem at hand. Second, to develop the student’s ability so that he may solve future problems by himself…If the same question is repeatedly helpful, the student will scarcely fail to notice it and he will be induced to ask the question by himself in a similar situation. Asking the question repeatedly, he may succeed once in eliciting the right idea. By such a success, he discovers the right way of using the question, and then he has really assimilated it… [Appropriate questions and suggestions] have two common characteristics, common sense, and generality. As they proceed from plain common sense they very often come naturally; they could have occurred to the student himself. As they are general, they help unobtrusively; they just indicate a general direction and leave plenty for the student to do” [How to Solve It, pp. 3-4]

The Effect Of Essential Questions

Thus, the whole point of the questions is similar for them to become the students’ questions in a gradual release of responsibility model, in the face of intellectual challenges, just as in my class. So, subject matter has nothing to do with it – despite the fact that many math teachers seem positively stubborn on this myopia of theirs. Everything depends upon whether the units have been set up to focus on genuine inquiry as opposed to pseudo-questions or pseudo-problems that have a simple approach and a preferred correct answer. (But then they aren’t real problems, are they?)

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Let me remind you of a basic point, then: in UbD we list Essential Questions in STAGE 1. In other words, the EQ is a goal. i.e. the QUESTIONING is the goal: the box does not say Essential Answers to Nice Questions.

All of this will be addressed at some length in our new book on Essential Questions, due out in early April. But I thought an excerpt from the book on a simple design process would be both a good ‘trailer’ for the book and a useful closure to this post:

We can describe what has to happen in any successful use of EQs in terms of a four-phase process:

A Four-Phase Process for Implementing Essential Questions

Phase: Introduce a question designed to cause inquiry.

Goal: Ensure that the EQ is thought-provoking, relevant to both students and the current unit/course content, and explorable via a text/research project/lab/problem/issue/simulation in which the question comes to life.

Phase: Elicit varied responses and question those responses.

Goal: Use questioning techniques and protocols as necessary to elicit the widest possible array of different plausible, yet imperfect answers to the question. Also, probe the original question in light of the different takes on it that are implied in the varied student answers and due to inherent ambiguity in the words of the question.

Phase: Introduce and explore new perspective(s)

Goal: Bring new text/data/phenomena to the inquiry, designed to deliberately extend inquiry and/or call into question tentative conclusions reached thus far. Elicit and compare new answers to previous answers, looking for possible connections and inconsistencies to probe.

Phase: Reach tentative closure.

Goal: Ask students to generalize their findings, new insights, and remaining (and/or newly raised) questions about both content and process.

Note that this process is not restricted to a single unit. We can use this framework to string different units together so that Phase 3 could be the start of a new unit in which a novel perspective is introduced and explored using the same question(s).

Here is a simple example from science using the question: What is science? In many middle school and high school science courses, teachers often devote an initial unit or lesson to the question. Typically, though, after an early reading and discussion, the question is dropped, never to return that year as attention turns to acquiring specific knowledge and skill. And no genuine inquiry into the question ever really occurs, ironically enough.  (This pattern is aided and abetted by most textbooks.)

Let’s see how the framework helps us more clearly see an alternative approach in which the Essential Question becomes more prominent throughout the course.

Example Of The Four-Phase Process for Implementing Essential Questions

Phase: Introduce a question designed to cause inquiry.

Goal: What is science? How does it relate to or differ from common sense and religious views on empirical issues?

Phase: Elicit varied responses and question those responses.

Goal: Students read 3 different short readings that address the EQ, in which there is great disagreement about what science is, how it works, and how much stock we should put in its answers.

Phase: Introduce and explore new perspective(s)

Goal: Students are asked to do 2 different experiments in which methods vary and the margin of error is salient. They also read about a few controversies and false discoveries in the history of science,: read Karl Popper on how science is inherently testable and tentative – ‘falsifiable’ – whereby contrast ideology can always ‘explain’ anything; read Feynmann on how most people misunderstand what science is; read David Hume on why we should be inherently skeptical about science as truth.

Phase: Reach tentative closure.

Goal: Ask students to generalize their findings, new insights, and remaining (or newly raised) questions about the nature of science.

As the example suggests, proper treatment of the question would demand not only that the question is constantly revisited throughout the year – “Based on the previous two experiments and our lively disagreements about the findings in the Global Warming research, what would you now say science is?” – but that the course must also, therefore, include a look at pseudo-science and the danger of confirmation bias, as well as consideration of the very counter-intuitive aspects of modern scientific thinking (which often give rise to common and persistent student misconceptions in the sciences and about science itself).

Here is an example from elementary social studies:

A Four-Phase Process for Implementing Essential Questions

(example – Elementary Social Studies)

Phase: Introduce a question designed to cause inquiry.

Goal: After a cursory lesson on the typical names and characteristics of US regions, ask: Could we carve up the map differently? What kinds of regions might be just as useful for us to define? What “regions” do we live in? How many regions do we live in?  

Phase: Elicit varied responses and question those responses.

Goal:  To what extent is defining an area as a “region” useful?  Compare and contrast the benefits and weaknesses of various regional maps and categories for school, town, and state; and alternate regions of the US, based on cultural aspects (e.g. regional sports affiliations).

Phase: Introduce and explore new perspective(s)

Goal: Pursue the idea of regions based on cultural aspects (food, leisure, jobs) and thus the extent to which talking about regions like the “south” or “northwest” may be unhelpful because it can cause us to stereotype and overlook uniqueness or diversity in every region. Related questions can then be explored: To what extent do we usefully define ourselves in “regional” terms, e.g. southerner, coastal, West Tennessee, Upstate NY, Northern California, etc. as opposed to by state or nation? When is it useful to define region by physical characteristics and when is it useful to define it by sociological characteristics? etc.

Phase: Reach tentative closure.

Goal: Ask students to generalize their findings, new insights, and remaining (or are newly raised) questions about regions and the usefulness of the idea.

In other words, inquiry by design, not mere teacher rhetorical questioning, makes an EQ come to life and go into depth. The texts, prompts, rules of engagement, and final assessments provide the key elements needed for the design to succeed, in light of the just-noted criteria: an intriguing and key question, inherent ambiguity, clearly different points of view, and shades of gray that will require careful questioning and discerning observation and research.