Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding


By Jay McTighe

In our book Understanding by Design (2005), Grant Wiggins and I propose that education should strive to develop and deepen students’ understanding of important ideas and processes so that they can transfer their learning inside and outside the school. Accordingly, we recommend that content standards be “unpacked” to identify long-term transfer goals and desired understandings. Part of this unpacking involves the selection or development of associated essential questions. Essential questions can be used to effectively frame our key learning goals by prioritizing the content. Moreover, good essential questions serve as doorways or lenses through which learners can better see and explore the key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems that reside within the content.essential questions

One meaning of the word essential is timeless. In this sense, essential questions arise naturally and recur throughout one’s life. Such questions are broad and universal in scope—What is justice? Are humans inherently good? A second connotation of the word essential relates to the key inquiries within a discipline. These kinds of questions are historically important and very much alive in the disciplines—Is history inevitably biased? How do we know what to believe about a scientific claim? A third important connotation of the word essential relates to what is vital or necessary for personal meaning making. In the case of education, this refers to what students need to understand core content. In this sense, a question can be considered essential when it helps students make sense of seemingly isolated facts and skills or important but abstract ideas and strategies—What makes an argument persuasive? What do effective problem solvers do when they get stuck? In our book, we use the phrase “come to an understanding” to suggest that this is an active process that occurs over time. By examining and reconsidering important (essential) questions, learners are challenged to construct meaning.

To help educators better understand the development and use of essential questions, Wiggins and I are presenting an ASCD Educator Effectiveness Institute, Essential Questions: Opening Doorways to Student Understanding, based on our 2013 book of the same title. During this institute, which will be held in multiple locations in December and February, participants will examine key ideas and questions such as the following: If the content represents the “answers,” then what were the questions that led to that content knowledge in the first place? How do we “uncover” the key ideas within a standard or a topic, not just skim the surface? How can a classroom culture best support student engagement and inquiry?

Examples of essential questions from many subjects will be shared along with classroom video examples of the questions in use. Participants will also review websites containing excellent resources on essential questions. More specifically, educators attending the institute will engage in a variety of active learning experiences to learn how to

  • Recognize the characteristics of truly essential questions.
  • Distinguish between overarching and topical essential questions and their uses.
  • Use essential questions to “unpack” standards and map a coherent curriculum.
  • Use practical and proven design tools for developing essential questions.
  • Use essential questions as an integral part of teaching for understanding.
  • Create a classroom culture of inquiry.

To view the dates and locations of this institute and register to attend, click here. To learn more about other ASCD Educator Effectiveness Institutes, visit


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