Asking Essential Questions, Mar 2015

Essential Questions:  Springboards to Higher Order Thinking

Thinking within disciplines is driven, not by answers, but by essential questions.    -Dr. Richard Paul

If development and utilization of higher order thinking skills is an important learning outcome for your courses, essential questions are a natural vehicle for helping students achieve that outcome.

What are essential questions?  Essential questions are the types of questions that led to the foundation of every intellectual field.   Without these types of probing questions, fields of knowledge would not have developed in the first place.  And, as Dr. Richard Paul points out, “When a field of study is no longer pursuing significant answers to essential questions, it dies as a field.”

Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins describe the learning outcome of essential questions as follows: “By tackling such questions, learners are engaged in uncovering the depth and richness of a topic that might otherwise be obscured by simply covering it.”  The intent of using essential questions to guide discussions, for example, is for learners to engage with the big ideas of a discipline, to “chew” on those matters within a discipline or across disciplines which are most worthy of deep consideration.

Consider the following examples discipline related essential questions provided by McTighe and Wiggins (links to these samples and others are provided below):

  • Arts: What can works of art tell us about a culture or society?  To what extent do artists have a responsibility to their audiences?
  • Biology: What are the characteristics of living systems?  What structures exist in these living systems?
  • History: How can we know what really happened?  How should governments balance the rights of individuals with the common good?
  • Literature: What is the relationship between fiction and truth?  How do effective writers hook and hold their readers?
  • Mathematics: How does what we measure influence how we measure? How does how we measure influence what we measure?  What are the limits of mathematical modeling?
  • Modern Languages: How do native speakers differ, if at all, from fluent foreigners?  How much cultural understanding is required to become competent in using a language?

In identifying essential questions for your courses, consider the characteristics of essential questions:

  • They demand higher order thinking, such as analysis, synthesis, and prediction, as they cannot be answered by using recall alone.
  • They are open-ended and do not have a single correct answer.
  • They point toward important ideas within and across disciplines.
  • They are intellectually engaging. They should spark more questions.

To find more information about stimulating learners’ higher order thinking and about essential questions specifically, see the links below: