Friday , 15 December 2017
Breaking News

Are your essential questions REALLY essential?

eqIn his critically-acclaimed book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen R. Covey said, “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of y our destination.  It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”  Over the past decade, educators have focused extensively on informal and formal formative assessment – gauging what students know, understand, and are able to do so they can make differentiated adjustments to instruction in order to meet students where they are.

One of the most powerful means of formative assessment is the use of quality essential questions and clear learning targets.  To create high-quality questions and targets, it is important to understand the fundamental differences between the two, know when it is appropriate to use each, and actually refer to the questions and targets throughout the lesson or unit to measure student knowledge.

Essential Questions:  All too often, I walk into classrooms and see what is deemed an essential question written on the board.  Unfortunately, many of these questions are merely closed-ended questions with one specific correct answer.  Although the acquisition of facts, vocabulary, and skills may be imperative to a specific course or grade-level, questions that solicit specific facts that are right or wrong are not truly essential questions.

The most important thing to remember is that good essential questions help students uncover the big ideas in the curriculum.  According to Grant Wiggins, “The Big Idea is really a signal to the teacher, more so than the student, about what we should keep coming back to. The Big Idea can be thought of as the linchpin. It’s a concept, or a theme, or an approach, or a strategy that demands repetition, iteration. We keep coming back to it. It permits us to have a focus and coherence. It’s not just about little bits of stuff you have to learn, but it is all meant to help you develop this big idea and appreciate this big idea. So, we would expect to see the big idea recur across lessons, across units, across courses, across years.”

eq criteriaTrue Essential Questions fall into one or more of these three categories

1.  Questions that recur throughout one’s life – These questions are always broad in scope and timeless by nature.  Human beings have argued these questions since the beginning of time, and we will continue to argue them.

  • What is justice? 
  • Is art a matter of taste or principles?
  • How far should we tamper with our own biology and chemistry? 
  • Is science compatible with religion?
  • Is an author’s view privileged in determining the meaning of a text?

2,  Questions that refer to key inquiries within a discipline – Essential questions in this sense are those that point to the big ideas of a subject and to the frontiers of technical knowledge. They are historically important and very much “alive” in the field.

  • What is healthful eating?

3.  Questions necessary for learning core contentA question can be considered essential when it helps students make sense of important but complicated ideas that may be understood by experts, but not yet grasped or seen as valuable by the learner. By exploring these questions, the student learns important understandings and builds greater coherence in content knowledge and skill.

  • In what ways does light act wave-like?
  • How do the best writers hook and hold their readers?
  • What models best describe a business cycle?

Click here to access more NCCS resources on Essential Questions and Clear Learning Targets.


Wiggins, G. (n.d.). Authentic Education – What Is an Essential Question?. Authentic Education – Welcome to Authentic Education. Retrieved September 16, 2013, from

About Heather Mullins

Heather Mullins is the Chief Academic Officer in Newton-Conover City Schools. She is a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who spent 12 years as a high school English Teacher. She received her B.S.Ed. in Secondary English Education from Western Carolina University. Heather completed her National Board Certification in Adolescent Young Adult English Language Arts in 2002. She holds an M.Ed. in Academically and Intellectually Gifted from UNC-Charlotte. Heather has served as a Curriculum Specialist in Hickory City Schools, an adjunct professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and a Professional Development Consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. She completed her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership through Western Carolina University. Heather is one of the co-founders of #NCed Chat, North Carolina’s first Twitter chat for teachers. She is passionate about innovative practices, instructional technology, student ownership of learning, and supporting teachers. Heather serves on the advisory board for the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan, North Carolina School for the Deaf and Catawba Science Center. She is a recipient of the 2015 NCMLE Central Office Administrator to Watch Award. She also received the 2016 Don Chalker Award for Excellence in Educational Leadership. Heather is the proud mother of one son, Jackson.

Leave a Reply