Essential Questions

Asking the Right Questions

Asking intriguing, open-ended questions is an effective way to encourage students to think deeply and to provide them with a meaningful context for learning. When students are given questions that they are truly interested in finding the answers to, they engage. When questions help them see the connections between the subject matter and their own lives, learning has meaning. We can help our students become more motivated and self-directed by asking the right questions. But what are the right questions?

Curriculum-Framing Questions provide a structure for organizing questioning throughout projects and promote thinking at all levels. They give projects a balance between content understanding and exploration of intriguing and enduring ideas that make learning relevant to students. Curriculum-Framing Questions guide a unit of study and include Essential, Unit, and Content Questions.

Essential and Unit Questions provide the rationale for learning. They help students to recognize the "why" and "how" and encourage inquiry, discussion, and research. They involve students in personalizing their learning and developing insights into a topic. Good Essential and Unit Questions engage students in critical thinking, promote curiosity, and develop a questioning approach to the curriculum. In order to answer such questions, students must examine topics in depth and construct their own meaning and answers from the information they have gathered.

Content Questions help students to identify the "who", "what", "where", and "when", and support the Essential and Unit Questions by providing a focus for understanding the details. They help students to focus on the factual information that must be learned in order to meet many of the content standards and learning objectives.

Using Curriculum-Framing Questions

Curriculum-Framing Questions build upon each other. Content Questions support Unit Questions and both support Essential Questions. Essential Questions are often the most intriguing and posed first. The questions below from a civics unit show the relationship between each.

Essential Question
  • Why do we need others?
Unit Questions
  • Which of our community helpers is the most important?
  • Which community helper would you most like to be?
Content Questions
  • Who are some community helpers?
  • What do community helpers do?
Essential Questions:
  • Introduce big, enduring ideas that cross all subjects. They provide a bridge between many units, subject areas, or even a year’s worth of study.
  • Have many answers. Answers to these questions are not found in a book. They are often life’s big questions. For example: Am I my brother’s keeper?
  • Capture students’ attention and require higher-order thinking; they challenge students to dissect their thinking, apply their values, and interpret their experiences.
Unit Questions:
  • Are open-ended and invite exploration of ideas that are specific to a topic, subject, or unit of study. Teams of teachers from different subjects can use their own unique Unit Questions to support one common, unifying Essential Question across the team.
  • Pose problems or serve as discussion starters that support the Essential Question. For example: How can we help prevent and relieve famine?
  • Encourage exploration, provoke and sustain interest, and allow for unique responses and creative approaches. They force students to interpret the facts themselves.
Content Questions:
  • Typically have clear-cut answers or specific “right” answers and are categorized as “closed” questions.
  • Align with content standards and learning objectives and support the Essential and Unit Questions.
  • Test students’ ability to recall fact based information. They usually require students to address who, what, where, and when. For example: What is famine?
  • Require knowledge and comprehension skills to answer.


Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2001). Understanding by design. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.