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January 19, 2017

Teaching at Pitt


Using essential questions as a framing device

I used to plan a new course by honing in on the course objectives.

Then I read “The Art of Asking Essential Questions” by Richard Paul and Linda Elder, founders of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. “It is not possible to be a good thinker and a poor questioner,” they argue. “Only when an answer generates further questions, does thought continue as inquiry.”

Faculty will agree; they want students who are motivated to dive further into an area of study. It is rewarding to work with students who are good thinkers, and instructors frequently cite critical thinking as a learning goal. Using questions is one way to frame learning and alert students to the purpose of a lesson as an intriguing concept.

Every discipline is grounded in fundamental questions and the critical understandings of that field. Yet few instructors spend time developing good questions that introduce students to higher levels of thought. Questions are an important component of the teaching and learning process. Instructors ask questions to help students recall what they already know, to check understanding, to evaluate skills. Such questions become natural to the seasoned instructor. But questions also can be used to frame learning. Good framing questions often are referred to as essential questions.

I began asking instructors about the big questions that they want students to tackle by the end of their courses and was surprised at the difficulty some faculty experienced in responding. Many of the questions begged for definitive answers or questions that could be addressed only after learning specific facts or following procedures.

Grant Wiggins, author of “Understanding by Design,” explains that essential questions are those that intellectually alive persons ponder, and these questions extend beyond a discipline. Essential questions are timeless and can recur throughout the lifetime. There is no one right answer. As people grow in experience and knowledge, their responses change and reflect different perspectives. Examples of essential questions include:

• How far should we tamper with biology and chemistry?

• Is an author’s view privileged in determining the meaning of text?

• Is science compatible with religion?


Wiggins says questions about big ideas signal that education extends beyond the discipline to learning how to learn. Opening a lesson with this form of question can stimulate the curiosity of your students. Unpacking the question can reveal a complexity of concepts and evidence.

Essential questions also can be developed from a disciplinary perspective, and focus on the big ideas within an inquiry of study. Examples of these questions include:

• Why is there something rather than nothing?

• Are genetically modified organisms harmful to our environment?

• How does music differ from noise?

• How does government balance an individual’s rights against the common good?


Disciplinary essential questions often stem from the debates going on in the field.

Most instructors are familiar with the form of essential questions targeting core foundational concepts. These questions help students grasp basic understandings of complicated ideas. Examples of these questions include:

• What is the nature of light?

• How does culture structure human behavior?

• How does intersectionality help us understand difficult social issues?


Essential questions can introduce one lesson or an entire semester of inquiry. Elder and Paul provide guidelines for unpacking complex conceptual questions:

• Put the questions as clearly and precisely as possible.

• Identify significant concepts in the question.

• Analyze the concepts that are problematic.

• Construct the following for each key concept: model cases; contrary cases; related cases; borderline cases.

• Consider multiple viewpoints and context.

• Note implications of possible conceptual decisions.

• Develop possible “answers” to the question with special attention to what makes the issue complex.


Essential questions don’t negate the need for objectives. Rather, the basic understandings and essential questions help to inform your objectives. When essential questions preface a multi-unit or semester-long instruction, they easily can become the focus of a final paper or exam. Consider using an essential question as the means to gain attention at the beginning of a learning cycle. Keep returning to it as you unpack the question and analyze its parts. Conclude by turning the question over to your students at the end of the course and determine how far they have come.

Carol Washburn is the manager of teaching and learning at the Teaching Center.

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