2 Simple Things That Will Make Essential Questions Better Every Time

An essential question is an incredibly powerful tool for discovery learning and critical thinking skill development. Essential and herding questions are also one of the 10 shifts of practice of future-focused learning.

If you consider what learning actually is, it is usually the answer to a need or what springs from curiosity around a personal connection. This usually involves the asking of essential questions to drive the learning. However, when they're working with EQs, teachers often ask, "How can I make essential questions better?"

We're always very happy when someone asks this question. The reason is simple; without a question to drive it forward, learning becomes lost and meaningless, and without purpose. All learning should start with a question, and the time it takes to craft a quality essential question provides much benefit in terms of engagement, context and relevance.

Here’s a catch, though—if you get the answer that you were looking for it doesn’t mean that you’ve asked an essential question in the first place. We need to find out how to make essential questions better by moving them from non-essential to essential in a few easy steps.

Below is a surefire way to make basic questions essential and make essential questions even more essential. We'll also show you a resource you can use as a foundation for developing the best possible EQs for your learners. 

The Two-Step Approach to Make Essential Questions Better

When we want to make essential questions better and more essential, we can generally use two basic strategies:

  1. Move the question higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy: This is about taking the question from simple recall to something that involves more in-depth analysis, evaluation, or even creating something to find an answer (these are the HOTS or higher-order thinking skills on Bloom’s Taxonomy).
  2. Remove specificity: This is about removing focus. Although many students might love to discuss who is more of a hero, Batman or Superman, a more essential question would be “What is heroism?” The increasingly more specific questions that arise from this become your "herding" questions—questions that drive learners into deeper scrutiny and high levels of discovery and learning.

Let’s look at an example using the following question: How can small actions eventually change the world? As we gradually remove specificity, more essential renditions of this question might be:

  • Why should we change the world?
  • How do we change?
  • Why is change necessary?
  • What is change?

Each one of these questions also requires skills at the higher end of Bloom's Taxonomy to be utilized—namely analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Pursuing the answers involves independent critical thinking, analyzing data and evaluating its efficacy, and potentially developing meaningful solutions to real-world problems.

This is the "focus" in future-focused learning, and why we strive to make essential questions better every time we work with them and present them to learners.

The Essentials You Need

There's no better place to find the best tools and advice you can get for building essential questions than our own guide, The Essential Guide to Essential Questions. In addition to the two steps above, you'll receive activities and worksheets, case studies and rubrics, and so much more to guide you in building essential questions that truly make the grade.