Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Essential Questions: What, Why, and How

Lindsay Williams, Shayna Pond | Published: August 4th, 2021 by K20 Center

Essential Questions

  • How do Essential Questions promote higher order thinking and engagement?

  • Why are Essential Questions an effective instructional tool?

Learning Goals

  • Identify the characteristics of an effective essential question.

  • Summarize the "whys" and "hows" of essential questions.

  • Formulate essential questions for a lesson in content areas.

Materials List

  • Lesson Slides #1

  • Lesson Slides #2 (Follow Up Activities)

  • Card Sort Card Handout (one set per group of 3-4 participants)

  • Card Sort Key (one copy per group)

  • T- Chart Essential Questions Handout (one copy for each participant)

  • Checklist—Essential Questions (one copy for each participant)

  • Instructional Strategy Note Sheet

  • Jigsaw Reading: "Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding" McTighe and Wiggins

  • Table-Types of Essential Questions

  • Highlighters

  • Chart paper


10 Minute(s)

Welcome participants and briefly introduce yourself and the professional development session.

Show slide 3. Introduce the Card Sort Activity. Pass out Card Sort Cards to groups of 2 or 3. Have participants sort the cards into two different categories based upon the instructions on the slide.

As groups are sorting their questions, briefly explain the T-Chart strategy, and distribute the T-Chart Essential Questions handout so that each group can record the characteristics that are common for each of the two types they have sorted their questions into.

Invite groups to discuss the differences between the two types of questions among themselves and come up with a way to summarize the difference between the two types for the other participants.

Show slide 4 to illustrate the T-Chart Essential Questions handout. Explain where each type of information should be recorded.

When groups have completed their card sorting, verbally confirm with them that they are satisfied with the information they have added to their T-Charts. Take a moment to share the session objectives on Slide 5 before moving on to the whole group discussion.

Show slide 6. Ask a few groups to share the differences between the two types of questions with the whole group. Review the answers to the card sort activity posted on the slide. Then, pass out the Checklist—Essential Questions handout.

Show slide 7. Review the Characteristics of Essential Questions on the slide. Allow participants to revise their grouping and explanations if necessary based on the information it contains.


20 Minute(s)

After the discussion of the characteristics, ask participants to read excerpts from Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding to deepen their knowledge regarding topical essential questions, nonessential questions, and metacognitive questions. Distribute copies of each of the individual Jigsaw reading assignments or have participants access the Google Docs version.

Share slide 8, which describes the Why-lighting activity. Pass out highlighters to participants.

Share slide 9, which introduces the Jigsaw strategy and describes the assigned reading topics. Each section is labeled with a letter to denote the topic.

Jigsaw Reading Assignments (Photocopy attachments or Link to Google Doc version)

  1. A - Two Sides of a Coin

  2. B - Three Connotation of Essential Questions

  3. C - Size and Scope Matter

  4. D - Non Essential Questions

As participants read their sections, have them highlight the main ideas and make notes in the margins noting what is important.

When all participants have completed the reading/highlighting activity, have them write a summary of their designated section.

Ask pairs who read the same section to share their Why-lights and synthesize their ideas into a shared summary statement.

Once summaries have been completed, have groups from each letter assignment share their summaries with the whole group.


5 Minute(s)

Once the participants have a clear understanding of essential questions through reading, ask them to reflect on the essential questions. Show slide 11 to share instructions for the Tweet Up activity.

  • How do Essential Questions promote higher order thinking and engagement?

  • Why are Essential Questions an effective instructional tool?

Ask participants to answer the questions individually by taking into consideration all four parts of the reading as shared to the whole group. Have participants write their response as a “tweet,” using only 140 characters or less. Ask them to add a hashtag (#) followed by one word or short phrase that sums up their main idea.


20 Minute(s)

Advise participants that the lesson culminates with their writing their own essential questions.

Ask participants to form small groups (3-5) with teachers who teach the same content area. Designate space on a board (if possible) or provide a large sheet of chart paper to each group.

As a group, have participants develop an essential question using a provided topic, or a concept of choice from their content area, (both of which could be based on content standards). Remind participants to use their Checklist-Characteristics of Essential Questions as a guide while formulating their questions.


5 Minute(s)

After everyone has formulated an essential question, ask participants to do Gallery Walk around the room. Have them read each other’s essential questions and anonymously evaluate them according to the Characteristics of Essential Questions criteria.

Research Rationale

Using essential questions to guide lesson development and implementation is a proven process that increases academic rigor and deepens understanding (McTighe & Wiggins, 2013). The criteria used to determine whether or not a question is essential could also be a list for what makes a classroom or lesson engaging and one that promotes critical thinking. The criteria include the following:

  • open-ended,

  • thought-provoking,

  • calls for higher-order thinking and important transferable ideas,

  • raises additional questions,

  • requires support and justification

  • is recurring

When engaged in learning that extends beyond the four walls of a classroom, students see connections to other subjects, topics and their own lives. These types of experiences foster authentic learning environments, which have been correlated to higher student achievement (Newmann, King & Carmichael, 2007).