Documentation:Course Design Intensive/Facilitators Guidebook/Essential Questions

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What Are Essential Questions?

Essential questions open up thinking and possibilities to everyone - they suggest a need to focus on reasoning rather than the right or wrong answer. Wiggins and McTighe propose four different meanings to the term essential. They are:

  • questions that could occur throughout our lives - they tend to be broad and timeless. For example: "What is justice?" "How do we predict?" "What counts as truth?"
  • questions that link to core ideas or big questions within a discipline
  • helps learners effectively inquire and make sense of core concepts and ideas. For example: In what ways does light act like a wave? How do the best writers hook and hold their audience? What models best describe a design process?
  • They are accessible, thought provoking and challenging.

Essential questions can be framed around 4 categories: key concepts; purpose and value; strategy and tactics; context of use. (Wiggins and McTighe, p. 113) For example:

  • How do you know, judge, assess...? (key concept)
  • Why does ...matter? (purpose and value)
  • What approaches support...are suited to...? (strategy)
  • When should you use....? (context)


Intent is everything when it comes to developing essential questions. What sort of exploration is intended by the question? Wiggins and McTighe deem a question essential if it meets the following criteria:

  • causes genuine and relevant inquiry into big ideas and core content.
  • provokes deep thought, sustained inquiry, lively discussion, new understanding and more questions.
  • requires students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas and justify their answers.
  • stimulates ongoing rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, prior learning.
  • sparks meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences.
  • naturally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other contexts.


  • What is the pattern and how do you know? (Mathematics)"
  • How do scientists prove things?
  • Who should lead?
  • In what ways does the medium influence the message? (Digital Humanities)
  • In what ways does art reflect as well as shape culture?
  • Whose perspective matters and why?
  • How do we evaluate credibility?
  • To what extent do we need checks and balances on government power?
  • Why is transparency in decision making important in business?
  • How does scientific understanding evolve?
  • How is our food security threatened?
  • How does food science benefit corporations?


Reference: Understanding by Design by G. Wiggins, J. McTighe 2nd ed. 2006. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.