Inquiry Learning

6 Strategies for Writing Essential Questions That Will Inspire Learners

It's just one single question that drives your whole unit, so be sure to make it count. 

In any great lesson, an essential question is what drives your learners' quest for knowledge and discovery. How do we begin writing essential questions that inspire our learners to think critically and search independently for creative and insightful responses?

One of the transformations occurring in modern learning is students becoming creators of knowledge. It's why we've defined essential questions as one of the ten shifts of practice in our book Future-Focused Learning. In essence, this shift means moving from answering the questions to questioning the answers. It's about the quest of pursuing a response to a question that isn't easily obtainable, which is, of course, the essence of an essential question.

In any great lesson, an essential question is what drives your learners' quest for knowledge and discovery. 

The simplest way to define an essential question is to call it open. It cannot be answered with a 'yes' or a 'no' or by being labelled true or false. If you can Google the answer or respond briefly, it doesn't inspire intense investigation or creative output. 

We generally tailor such inquiries to the age and maturity of the students. They must also provide clear opportunities for extension and enrichment while meeting curricular needs.

The Need to Explore and Create

The possibility of creating something meaningful is how we connect students to their learning. Essential questions explore relevant real-world issues and inspire students to create unique solutions within the context of the required curriculum. We want students to find the answers and discover the unknown, and then learn more from that. If possible, we want them to get excited about going on that journey.

Writing essential questions is easy once you understand the concepts. From there, it's intriguing to think about all the possible solutions that can hide within such a question. What could they inspire students to create? 

The possibility of creating something meaningful is how we connect students to their learning.

Being concise with your EQ is also crucial. It's just one single question that will drive your whole unit, so be sure to make it count. It should be clear to the teacher and the learners the significance of the question.

When writing essential questions and scaffolding the learning process, the teacher and students should be able to articulate:

  • Why they answered the question
  • The reasons the concepts are important
  • How it's important to them as individuals and the wider community

    6 Key Guidelines for Writing Essential Questions

    Mastering the art of writing essential questions is a worthwhile pursuit for any teacher. A fundamental question is central to any lesson, so it must inspire deep levels of thinking and foster a desire to discover the truth. We want to present you with six quick considerations for writing essential questions that will help you as you move along in the process.

    1. Start With Standards

    What curricular connection do I want to make with my essential question?

    The best place to start is with your curriculum because it's what we're responsible for teaching and what learners must learn. It's not just the best place to start; it's the only place. Why not use what you're passionate about in that curriculum? Search your objectives and jot some ideas down for workshopping.

    2. Have a Clear Challenge

    What is the specific problem or challenge I want students to face in this question?

    When writing essential questions, always clearly present some challenge or problem. That's what students must tackle to learn the objectives, so a clear challenge will help them own their learning.

    3. Have Suitable Projects in Mind

    How can the learners meet the challenge of this EQ using creativity and ingenuity?

    Make sure your question gives students a need to develop both a product and a process as a solution. They would then apply that to the problem or challenge. These project descriptions won't appear in the actual question, but you'll form the question with them in the back of your mind.

    collaboration session

    4. Offer Collaborative Opportunities

    What kinds of problems would require students to work together in groups?

    Our learners enjoy working together because they can challenge, push, and support each other on levels their teachers sometimes can't. Besides, the sense of agency and autonomy over their learning they receive by working with their peers is invaluable in shaping lifelong learning capacity.

    Whenever possible, guide students towards working together. Through collaborative challenges, they'll support each other in problem-solving processes. Remember that effective collaboration can include working with both real and virtual online partners.

    5. Stretch Their Imaginations

    How can I create curiosity and inspire a knowledge quest with my EQ?

    Remember that a question that learners can answer with a simple search isn't essential, so devise questions that stretch their imaginations. As the late Grant Wiggins said, "What is a question that any thoughtful and intellectually alive person ponders and should keep pondering?"


    6. Play Within Your Limits

    Can these projects be completed within a specific budget/time frame using the technology we have available?

    Always keep in mind your time frame and budgetary considerations. Consider what technology you have available for students to use, and always keep your SMART goals in mind (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-efficient).

    Essential Questions Mastery

    EQ Guidebook and The Essential Guide to Essential Questions

    To help you discover more about how you can develop your best essential questions for inquiry-based learning, Wabisabi Learning has created teaching resources that you'll find pivotal in this professional transformation quest.

    First, we've got two must-have guides, The EQ Guidebook and the info-packed book the Essential Guide to Essential Questions. These informative books will help you better understand what makes up an excellent essential question and how to make your own.

    Inquiry Learning Masterclass

    There are those among you who will want to take your essential question knowledge to new professional heights. To do this, look no further than the Wabisabi Learning Community's six-week masterclass Foundations of Inquiry-Based Learning.

    This immersive online experience with Wabisabi's master instructors will teach you how to create and incorporate stunning and provocative essential questions, and embed them within inspiring inquiry learning initiatives your students will love.

    We currently have over 200 teachers taking this masterclass with more enrolling every day. Join us and grow your inquiry skills while learning how to create classroom conditions for productive questioning and collaboration. Learn more about this popular masterclass here