What does an Essential Question look like?


Though Socrates made asking questions seem deceptively simple, it’s actually a complex process. Here are a few criteria to creating the kinds of deep questions that lead to incredible conversations.

Criteria #1- Essential Questions are clear on the surface but complex underneath 

Certain questions cause confusion, throwing off comfortable ways of thinking. This is the critical first step in learning. Lack of clarity, though, becomes an asset that sets in motion the process of thinking through a complex problem. The inherent confusion of a really good questions motivates us to find an answer and- most importantly- invites us to have a conversation.

Criteria #2– Essential Questions reveal multiple perspectives.

There is typically more than one way to answer these types of questions. Lack of certainty is again an asset, positioning us intellectually to develop logical arguments to convince others towards our perspective. Seeing multiple perspectives cultivates a spirit of empathy and tolerance for difference and encourages us to find new truths hiding inside conversations.

Criteria #3– Big Questions beg for clear definitions

Hiding inside many questions are words with messy definitions often overlooked. For example, “Does American history reflect the achievement or failure of the American Dream?” Notice the phrase “American Dream” requires immediate and extensive investigation. The American Dream for a union worker, business owner or farmer will be very different. Socrates demonstrated that the starting point for critical thinking is a precise definition of words. Confusion over words fosters conversations between people who must share their own unique understanding of what words mean.

When and how do I use essential questions?

Essential questions are GREAT to use with conversations. Several of the posts on this blog come from a conversation method developed by Teach Different.

The method starts with a provocative quotation from a famous person, gets students talking about the claim and counterclaim of the quotation and then ends with an essential question for further study. The essential question is the pivot point from the conversation to the next activity– exit slip, journal entry, essay prompt for example.

Here’s an example with Mahatma Gandhi


Quote: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”  Mahatma Gandhi

Essential Question: Is sacrificing for others always the right thing to do?

Try it out! Send out this assignment to students to set up the conversation.

1 thought on “What does an Essential Question look like?

  1. Pingback: Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old (and counting…) – Socrates Questions

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