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How do you encourage your students to become deeply engaged in your curriculum? How do you keep them coming back for more? What makes your curriculum come alive for your students? Essential questions – those big idea questions – can do all of that and more! An essential question frames a unit of study into a problem to be solved. It should form a connection back to the real world where students can put their new understandings to work.

Essential questions cause us to think deeply about a subject, to make judgments about what supports our answer and what throws doubt on that answer. Essential questions help us build and expand on prior knowledge. When we create an atmosphere of inquiry our students benefit through increased rigor and understanding. Of course, inquiry-based learning requires a paradigm shift. It replaces memorization with a learning experience that engages students to learn by questioning.

Are essential questions the only good questions? Is there a place in education for guiding questions? Leading questions? Hooking questions? Of course! There are all sorts of good pedagogical reasons for using a question format to underscore knowledge. But those questions are only “essential” to the teacher to determine recall of information or content knowledge.

Are all essential questions created equally? The term essential question has several connotations. One broad meaning is important questions that recur throughout life. These are the lifelong questions that we sometimes lose sight of while focusing on mastery of content. Another meaning of essential refers to key inquiries within a discipline. These essential questions point to the big ideas of a subject. A third connotation is when it helps students make sense of important but complicated ideas and knowledge. These are findings already known by the expert, but not yet grasped by the learner.