Educators: Essential Questions

Hugh McDermott, UNHS Principal

It has been estimated that teachers ask between 300 and 400 questions per day and that as many as 120 might be posed in a single hour! I remember my cooperating teacher asking me to audio-tape—remember those?—five minutes of one of my lessons. When I then listened to it, I counted 20 questions in a minute—it was awful and painful to listen to myself. I violated all types of rules such as “wait time” and a lack of variety of bloom’s taxonomy level questions. It was an important lesson.

Asking good questions is a craft that many of us have to practice. Wiggins and Wilbur (2013) wrote that essential questions rarely arise in a first draft and that writing and rewriting helps craft them. “Essential questions” stir inquiries, discussion and reflections to help students find meaning in their learning and achieve deeper thought and higher quality work. Criteria for making essential questions includes:

  • Stimulate ongoing thinking and inquiry.
  • Arguable, with multiple plausible answers.
  • Raise further questions.
  • Spark discussion and debate.
  • Demand evidence and reasoning because varying answers exist.
  • Point to big ideas and pressing issues.
  • Fruitfully recur throughout the unit or year.
  • Answers proposed are tentative and may change in light of new experiences and deepening understanding.

As we teach students in the online format, we consider the value of creating and presenting some questions within our feedback to inspire deeper thinking.

I also encourage you to keep practicing your question-making,
whether it is in the classroom, online or with your friends and family.

Wiggins, G., & Wilbur, D. How to Make Your Questions Essential. ASCD Educational Leadership. September 2015. 73:1.

Author: University of Nebraska High School

Accredited online high school program providing award-winning curriculum to students in all 50 states and more than 100 countries.

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