September 17, 2015 by

Use Essential Questions to Drive Professional Learning


By Andrew Miller

Miller Essential Questions 300x300Essential questions aren’t just for classroom and student learning; they can also be used for adult learning. Open-ended, provocative, and intriguing, essential questions can provide an excellent framework for exploring teacher and schoolwide learning. Many schools, districts, and teachers use essential questions to drive student learning. For example, for a larger district initiative on assessment, the essential question might be “How will all stakeholders know we are a standards-based district?” Or, the essential question might be more specific to a teacher, such as “How can I use assessment to work smarter for my students?” Or, there might be questions around ideal learning and engagement, such as “How do I know my students are truly engaged?” and “What does engagement mean to my students?” The possibilities are endless, and these essential questions can provide excellent touchstones for professional learning.

Keep the Focus

One great part about essential questions is that they can give us a focus. All too often, there are too many initiatives occurring and no sense of cohesion. Through essential questions, we can focus our work, whether that be on assessment, personalized learning, parent engagement, or school culture. Instead of choosing many essential questions that can distract our focus, we should select a limited amount of essential questions to focus professional learning and create a sense of purpose, excitement, and cohesion.

Be Open or Apply Open-Ended Thinking

If we truly want essential questions to drive our professional learning, then we need to be open and use open-ended thinking. What does that mean? That means that teachers may be doing different things to investigate essential questions. Teachers might participate in workshops, attend webinars, visit classrooms, and complete book studies. Not all of these activities will be mandatory for all teachers, as we all have different learning needs to address in our essential questions. Essential questions can help us personalize professional learning, but only if we are willing to be flexible in their implementation.

PLCs and Choice

One way to ensure personalization and choice is to have different PLC groups investigate different questions. PLCs are a great way to accomplish open-ended thinking in a structured environment. These groups have clear deliverables and protocols to support structure while giving teachers space to explore in personally meaningful and professional ways.

Remember, it is important to revise and revisit these questions often. As we learn, we refocus and create new questions that move us toward deeper learning. The same should be true of professional learning. With essential questions, we are not only modeling great learning but also empowering all stakeholders in education to take action and nurture the whole child. By using essential questions, we can push all educators to teach for understanding in the classroom. How do you use essential questions to drive your professional learning?


Andrew Miller is the author of the ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail: How do I foster risk-taking and innovation in my classroom? He is on the national faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization specializing in 21st century project-based learning. Miller is also an ASCD Faculty member, providing expertise in a variety of professional development needs, and a regular blogger for Edutopia. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.