Using Essential Questions to Focus Teaching and Learning

Essential questions were conceived by Dr. Theodore Sizer, Dean of Brown University School of Education after studying high schools in this country for a Carnegie research project. His book, Horace's Compromise describes the frustration of a teacher trying to help his students develop their knowledge and skills. Among factors like the schedule, course structures, the evaluation process and the physical space, Horace felt like the most important questions were almost impossible to address.

The idea of essential questions, formed by scholars, teachers and students, has become a cornerstone of many reform efforts around the country. Teachers who use essential questions report that they are a powerful tool for focusing daily classroom activity on a meaningful goal. For students, essential questions are a clear statement of expectations - what they will know and be able to do, allowing them to take more responsibility for taking learning away from every lesson.

Enduring Essential Questions
Teaching with Essential Questions

Writing Essential Questions


Examples of enduring essential questions

Identity and History
Who am I?
Who is my family?
What is the group to which I I belong?
What is the story of that group?

Other People & Groups
Who are the other people around me and in other parts of the world?
How are they similar to and different from me?
How do they look? What do they do?
What is their story?

My Place in the World
Where do I live?
How do I get here?
How do I fit into the universe?
What will happen to me as I grow and when I die?

The Psychological World
What is in my mind? Do others have minds? Are they like mine?
What are thoughts, dreams and feelings?
Where do my emotions come from? How can I handle them?
How do I remember things? How do I communicate?

The Biological World
What about other creatures? Do animals think? plants?
What does it mean to be alive? dead?
How are animals are related to one another and to the world of plants and to humans?
Is there a substance of life? How is it created?

The Physical World

What is the world made up of?
Why do things move?
What do we know about the sun, the waters, the rocks - their origins, their fate?

Forms, Patterns, Sizes
Why do things look and feel the way they do?
What regularities are there in the world?
How do they come about?
What is big? biggest?
How can you tell?

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Teaching with Essential Questions

What is an Essential Question?
What strikes you about these questions?
Where do they come from?
What do you do with them?
How do you evaluate them?

How do I elicit them from students . . .
What do you want to know?
What is there to know?
What questions have people asked on this subject?
What questions have been answered? not answered?

How do Essential Questions shape the curriculum?
When would students need or want to address this question?
How will they explore what they already know? - identify what they don't know - plan? - find out more? (resources)
Work with others?
Show what they know?

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Characteristics for writing essential questions

1. Are posed within the context of important life questions.
2. Are written so students can understand them
3. Have no obvious right or simple answers
4. Require higher order thinking, problem solving or decision-making
5. Use concepts which require students to use their knowledge in developing
6. Cause students to organize their knowledge to uncover and recover
important ideas now and in the future


Dramatica's Twelve Essential Questions:  Do you know these things about your story?  Screenplay writers use essential quesions to shape their work

CNN's Millenium:  A Thousand Years of History
Essential questions created to go along with television segments of history

Bellingham School District's "The Research Cycle Begins with an 'Essential Question'"
Examples of essential questions for each grade level

Internet Innovations Incorporated - Asking the Essential Question
How to write the questions that shape research

Integrated Curriculum - Essential Questions
Heidi Hayes Jacob's criteria for forming essential questions

Waltham Public Schools Long-Range Technology/Library Plan:  The 12 Essential Questions  An example of how one school shapes their technology plan using essential questions

Coalition of Essential Schools Fieldbook  Essential questions across disciplines

Essential Questions for Understanding the Western United States and Colorado

OceanQuest 2000:  Essential Questions in ocean preservation

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