Inquiry Learning

6 Essential Question Activities That Will Get Students Thinking

Here are essential question activities to get your students learning independently and making their own discoveries.

In their formative school years, our students will (and should) do far more than memorizing facts. They'll write papers that give them an opportunity to scrutinize information and present their own conclusions. Analyzing important historical or scientific moments of our culture will come into play. 

You'll experience brilliant oral presentations that demonstrate leadership capabilities from them. They'll even perform in-depth academic research and conduct dazzling scientific experiments.

Throughout all this, you can guarantee one thing: they will be continuously asking essential questions.

What's in a Question? Everything

When students are challenged during their academic careers, they're developing critical thinking skills. They won't, though, if they don’t have a passion for learning. How many times have you seen students lose interest in learning because school bored them?

Students are inherently curious about the world around them. They want to grow intellectually and engage in things that challenge them. Spurring them to ask questions rather than answer them might make them more intellectually curious. 

Asking questions about academic subjects is a very good thing. If you really want to spur students to think, though, get them asking essential questions that break the placid waters of content and go into the whats, hows, and whys that rest deep beneath its surface.

Using Essential Question Activities to Drive Curiosity

Essential questions lead us to investigate the background of a problem. From there, we choose from various courses of action to create a solution. A good essential question will inspire a quest for knowledge and discovery. It will also require us to analyze and evaluate rather than simply state a fact. This is what gives rise to other questions.

students writing

Here's an interesting excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions:

“When students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater ownership of their learning, deepen comprehension. and make new connections and discoveries on their own. However, this skill is rarely—if ever—deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school.”

So the question becomes how to do this. As teachers and administrators, you want to see kids grow and shine. You desire student engagement in learning. It's rewarding to see students leaving class feeling they truly learned something incredible.

A good essential question will inspire a quest for knowledge and discovery.

One of the best ways to do that is to guide them towards that sense of learning ownership. Get them asking those essential questions. There is a shortlist of essential question activities below to explore.

1. Create Dream States

The Dream phase of Solution Fluency encourages us to "dream without borders" in visualizing solutions. You can get students asking good questions by placing them in these kinds of situations.

Talk about issues that we believe are insurmountable. It could be something like pollution, poverty, or disease. It could be global warming or our dwindling water supply. It could be the effects of racism or war. These are all things we choose to think there are no solutions for. The whole idea of essential questions is exploring possibilities. It's about asking, "what if ... ?"

Begin by asking students to forget what we believe, and think about the future. Imagine a tomorrow where these issues were only distant memories. Encourage essential questions like:

  • What does this impossible solution look like in practice?
  • What would things be like if they got worse before they got better?
  • What would the world be like if we actually made this happen?
  • What would it take to create a global solution?
  • How would our mindsets need to change to create a change for the better?

2. Let Students Talk With Leaders

Students will be interested in science if they get to interact with people at a science lab or space centre. They’ll be more interested in politics if they can write to their MP or mayor. 

kids doing interview

Ask the students to ask these professionals tough questions. You would be surprised how many important people are happy to communicate with schoolchildren. The more well-constructed students' questions are, the better.

The whole idea of essential questions is exploring possibilities. It's about asking, "what if ... ?"

Hold Zoom conversations with local professionals in the community or beyond. You might also consider asking students to contact officials from colleges or universities they want to attend. There are people in their fields of interest who are willing to answer questions and give some of their time.

3. Students as Teachers

How do you come up with essential questions to ask students? You spend time formulating the questions as part of a lesson plan. What if students had to formulate a lesson plan themselves? Obviously, most students won’t be able to teach an entire class. Nevertheless, maybe they can come up with essential questions if they lead a classroom discussion.

It's like brainstorming a group project with friends on a class-wide scale. They can choose subjects they're passionate about. You can also try to find ways to tie the subject matter to their interests. Then watch them engage and inspire each other as the EQs start flowing.

4. Pretending

Roleplaying is a huge part of creative learning. As far as essential question activities go, it's one of the most fun ones for students. They could research an era of history and choose one of interest to them. They can zero in on specific characters and learn about them.

kid scientist

After they've built personas, they can have chats and discussions about relevant issues in character. It can also be done as a dramatic scene for the whole class to enjoy.

Another approach to such essential question activities is fictional diaries. How would they write about events in their own words from the perspective of a historical figure?

5. Great Group Debates

Say you have a 25-student class. They could form into five groups. One group consists of five students who are pretending to be scientists. Another group consists of five political leaders. There could also be groups consisting of ordinary people, writers, artists, and so on. They can then debate on subjects relative to the lesson. Better yet, they can challenge each other group-to-group on one crucial topic. The idea would be to explore issues from different social and academic perspectives and views.

The reality is that many students struggle to learn when they’re alone. They are sparked by discussions with others. The groups could then share what they’ve learned from each other.

6. Exploring the Outside World

The 180th day lecturing students on a subject is unlikely to spur them to learn any more than the previous 179. What if a portion of that time was spent at a museum, farm, or other multitiered operation? It could literally be any field trip meant to offer an entertaining academic experience.

museum trip

In this situation, each student may have a different assignment. They could work on them in pairs or groups of three. Each project would be unique. The students should be prepared to complete assignments based on their experience and share them with the class.

Essential Question Activities Mean Essential Learning

Students can become more passionate about learning if they're allowed to question and investigate. They'll become concerned about asking essential questions and improve their academic and intellectual skills while answering them.

Ultimately, the best resource for them—and for you—to learn about essential questions is in our popular book The Essential Guide to Essential Questions. Packed with activities, examples, rubrics, case studies, and more, it's an essential guide for anyone wanting to master creating and assessing essential questions.

The Essential Guide to Essential Questions Book Wabisabi LearningThe Essential Guide to Essential Questions Book Wabisabi Learning

The Essential Guide to Essential Questions
$ 19.95

Here is an essential guide for creating and asking questions for transformational learning, containing hundreds... read more