Using Essential Questions in Curriculum

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Essential questions are an important part of instruction but can sometimes be confusing. What are they, and how are they different than an everyday question? Read on for details.

Defining Essential Questions

Strong teachers ask their students questions often throughout the day for many reasons, such as to monitor comprehension or dig for deeper thinking. In traditional education, teachers instruct content daily and at the end of units ask students to remember and repeat that information. This way we know whether or not students 'got it.'

Today's curriculum is a bit more rigorous. Educators and curriculum developers are curving instructional standards towards a deep understanding driven by conversations and other interactions with content. At the center of all this in-depth learning is the essential question, or questions that are not easily answered. In fact, answering essential questions requires understanding and thoughtful reflection.

Characteristics of Essential Questions

Principal Anderson asks his teachers to use essential questions as part of their teaching. As he walks through the building, he sees evidence of confusion. Many teachers have questions written on the board that are daily objectives, such as 'What is an adjective?' Though these are great learning points, they're certainly not essential questions.

How did his teachers get so confused? Over the summer, they had a day of in-service covering essential questions. He decides to help clear things up by creating a list of characteristics of essential questions.

Principal Anderson's memo to teachers is direct. He wants them all to review the list of characteristics and make sure they're on top of using them correctly by Monday.

Essential questions:

  • Are open-ended without one simple, single answer
  • Require thought and engagement with content
  • Use high order thinking skills or those requiring analysis and evaluation
  • Cannot be answered using recall skills alone
  • Lead to more questions and inquiry of the theme or topic
  • Are timeless - students will encounter the same questions again in their lives
  • Drive learning throughout the theme or unit

He puts a copy of the list in each teacher's mailbox. Now that his teachers are armed with a clear list of what essential questions are, Principal Anderson thought he'd walk in Monday morning to a school filled with deep conversations and energized learning. Instead he came into a building of confused teachers needing more guidance than before. Yikes! How can he help his teachers understand? He plans an emergency staff meeting for after school.

Understanding Essential Questions

Principal Anderson decides to tackle this like a teacher instead of an administrator. When the teachers walk into the staff meeting, they're greeted by two questions on the board. Principal Anderson wants them to look at them and decide which one is an essential question and which is not. Here they are:

'Is there really such a thing as freedom?'

'Why did the people fighting in the war want freedom?'

The teachers can clearly see the difference between these two questions; the first is the essential one because it requires deeper thought, sparks conversations, doesn't have one solid answer, and requires higher order thinking to answer it. The other can be answered with simple recall.

Now that Principal Anderson knows his teachers can tell the difference between an essential question and a lower level question he moves on to the purpose of them - how and why they're used in the classroom.

Using Essential Questions

Principal Anderson explains that essential questions are used to focus a unit or for thematic learning. They are posed at the beginning of units and revisited throughout. Though they aren't the central learning concept, they do drive and frame understanding. He gives an example.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account