An essential question helps students engage with their existing knowledge base and draw new patterns between the ideas – there is no singular right answer. They help students move to higher-order thinking. 


Essential Questions Are The Questions That Students Will Remember.

You have challenges that test your ability to adapt, plan strategically, and engage students at different learning levels.

Too often, you may be in a position where your unit plans and ongoing curriculum development do not always line up with long-term, meaningful learning outcomes for students. 

You are expected to keep test scores up and set the stage for students to become lifelong learners – a delicate balance.

Integrating essential questions into your curriculum will help drive long term learning, as well as help students engage and frame your unit plans. 

What is an Essential Question (EQ)?

An essential question helps students engage with their existing knowledge base and draw new patterns between ideas.

They are provocative and generative. They create a difference of opinion, are catalysts for in-depth discussion, and bring absolute truths into question. 

Essential Questions: 

  1. Are Open-ended – Do not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  1. Are Thought-provoking and intellectually engaging – Often sparking discussion and debate.
  1. Require higher-order thinking – Cannot be effectively answered by recall alone – analysis, inference, evaluation, and prediction. 
  1. Develop transferable ideas – Across subject or unit topics, as well as other disciplines.
  1. Sparks additional questions –  Inquisitive based learning is a crucial feature.
  1. Use support and justification – Claim, support, conclusion – not just a singular answer.
  1. Evolve with time – Questions revisited, new approaches taken, and new ideas brought to the table.

Why Essential Questions Drive Purposeful Learning 

Education has evolved past the days of the teacher, letting knowledge flow to students. Modern instruction, curriculum development, and best pedagogical practices put the student in charge of their learning – the teacher acts as their guide. 

Essential questions stimulate thinking and inquiry beyond just the time in which they are posed. They help students develop the thinking tools to question their surroundings and drive real learning over the long term.

The goal is for the ideas and processes your students learn from tackling essential questions to transfer outside of school. 

Core Content & Essential Questions

Essential questions also help set the framework for unit plans and short-term learning. They help unpack complicated subject matter – addressing the depth vs breadth concern many educators have. 

When deciding what you want/need students to learn, remember to think about core content power standards and enduring understandings. 

What do you want your students to recall:

  • 40 days from now?
  • 40 months?
  • 40 years?

The 40/40/40 – rule plays a considerable role in shaping any forward-thinking curriculum plan and instructional design you adopt into your students’ every day.

Quick Tip

What are “ the fun to knows,” “important things to remember and test for,” and  “foundational understandings to carry this human being forward for the rest of their life.”

Non-Essential Questions 

Non-essential questions still play a role in every day of education. They supplement the learning process driven by essential questions and help when demonstration-based learning is required – i.e tests and evaluations.

There are several types of non-essential questions.

Types Of Non-Essential Questions

Hook Questions

Hook questions are buzzworthy -they grab the attention of your students. Hook questions are great for starting a new unit plan and drives early student engagement.

  • What is the probability there are other beings out in the universes?
  • Is there a way for you to live forever?
  • Are you able to see the future when you dream?

Leading Questions

Leading questions help you suggest particular answers, and contain part of the information required to answer the question.

  • If the capital of The United States of America isn’t on the west coast, where is it?
  • If it starts with an ‘N’,  what is the symbol for Sodium?
  • When do the two hands on a clock line up in parallel other than at midnight?

Guiding Questions

Guiding questions allow students to move to higher thinking levels by providing more open-ended support that calls students’ attention to necessary details without being prescriptive.

  • Why must we have a positive integer?
  • How is the semicolon used when separating two seperate ideas?
  • Is this the right number of electrons?

How To Write A Good Essential Question

Your goal is to drive Socratic discussion and long-term foundational learning. 

Focus on the arch of the story you are trying to frame and how/why the question fits into the larger unit and curriculum development plan. 

Essential questions hammer on core human-centric concepts: 

  • What has/will really happen – history and the future is imperfect. 
  • Why do people do what they do – incentives, risks, and rewards
  • How is (insert any big concept) possible?

A good essential question: Is timeless.

A question is timeless if students will likely continue to face the ideas and concepts in the short and long term.

  • What is fairness or justice?
  • When should science be preemptively used?

Reflects on key/foundational topics ideas within the unit topic. 

The question must point to big ideas and require technical knowledge to engage in a meaningful way. 

  • What are some of the effects of global trade on the environment?
  • Why are scientific discoveries so important?

Is crucial for personal understanding of core content.

An essential question helps students engage with their existing knowledge base and draw new patterns between the ideas – but no leading questions, please!

  • In what ways do particles act like a wave?
  • Why are data models used to predict natural phenomenon?
  • How are economics and society linked?

Quick Tip

The intent of the question is always more important than the way it is asked. Not all questions that begin with Why, How, In What Ways are not inherently Essential Questions. 

Examples Of Good EQ’s

Remember, essential questions (and key understandings) differ in scope. 

You can have specific essential questions topical to a unit plan or more overarching questions mapped to your curriculum plan. 

Science (Grade 8-12)

  • How are properties and patterns used in constructing models?
  • How do models (including cycles) help explain repeating patterns and changing properties?
  • How are models similar or different from the natural world?
  • How do scientists respond to new evidence that challenges existing beliefs?
  • What is the relationship between science and technology and how are both used?

Social Justice (Grade 8-12)

  • What are the factors that create an imbalance of power within a culture?
  • What does power have to do with fairness and justice?
  • When is it necessary to question the status quo? Who decides?
  • What are the benefits and consequences of questioning/challenging

Love, Community, & Sacrifice (Grade 8-12)

  • In the face of adversity, what causes some individuals to prevail while others fail?
  • If any, what are the boundaries of love and sacrifice, and where does one draw the line between them?
  • What are the factors that move individuals/communities/nations to great sacrifice and what are the consequence?

Language & Literature (9-12)

  • How is our understanding of culture and society constructed through and by language?
  • How can language be powerful?
  • How can you use language to empower yourself?
  • How is the language used to manipulate us?
  • Existential Thoughts & Ourselves
  • How do we know what we know?
  • What is changeable within ourselves?
  • How does what we know about the world shape the way we view ourselves?
  • How do our personal experiences shape our view of others?

EQ’s At The End Of The Day

It is only through essential questions your students may one day become knowledge experts in a given subject.

You are responsible for developing the inquiry-based, interrogative, and thought-active learning skills students need to succeed.

While the big questions are still left for you to ask, Chalk’s planning and analytics platform can help you align impactful lessons – helping you get your arch right. 

If you have any questions about building and managing a centralized personalized digital curriculum for student success, get in touch.

Check out these Chalk articles to continue learning: [Infographic]: What Should Be Included In An Individual Teacher’s Curriculum, Don’t Be Fooled: Textbooks Are Not Your Curriculum, and How to Audit Your Curriculum: An 8-Step Guide.