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Essential Learning Questions

Essential Learning Questions

Author: Trisha Fyfe

This lesson allows learners to explore the idea of essential questions, which support the learning goals and provide the driving force for instruction.

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Source: Image of light bulb, Public Domain,; Image of question marks, Public Domain,

Video Transcription

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Welcome to a tutorial on essential learning questions. Essential learning questions are such a powerful tool for teachers, and maybe one of the most meaningful to students. I'm excited to begin this tutorial with you. We will learn today about essentials learning questions, and we will answer the following questions in doing so.

What are essential learning questions, and why should we as teachers use these essential learning questions in our teaching? Essential learning questions are a big part of the Understanding by Design framework, which was developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in the 1990s.

There's a few things that essential learning questions have in common. One of them is that they all require students to think at a higher level. They also ask students to consider the big picture. What are the big ideas that we're getting at as teachers? They're really important questions that are encountered again and again throughout one's life. They're also very critical questions within a topic and discipline. They're very important to what we are teaching and the objectives for teaching to.

Essential learning questions are questions that help students make sense of the core content and the ideas. So what exactly are essential learning questions? Here are some examples. Why is it important for us to read? What is a healthy lifestyle? Why is pollution bad for our environment? How has art changed over time? How would life be different without computers?

Some examples of non-essential questions, which is the opposite of essential questions, of course, are what do fiction and nonfiction mean. This is not an open ended question at all. What is pollution? Again, not open ended. There's a definition for pollution. When were computers first developed? Hopefully these gave you an idea of some examples of the essential versus non-essential questions.

All essential learning questions have several characteristics, so one thing to think about is why should we use these essential learning questions. And this is where the characteristics come into play. They were developed to answer this question. Essential learning questions promote inquiry into big ideas of content, and all essential learning questions do this.

They also promote high level thought and lively discourse, also new understanding within lessons. Essential learning questions require students to consider evidence, justify ideas, and consider alternatives to ideas and content. Essential learning questions promote meaningful connections within learning. They also create opportunities for transfer of learning within content area.

Today's tutorial was fairly short, but we did cover a really important idea for us as teachers. Essential learning questions are a part of the Understanding by Design framework. However, most teachers, and really all effective teachers, do use these essential learning questions on a daily basis with their students in every lesson that they teach. They're great questions for promoting student inquiry and engagement in your classrooms.

Today, we answered the following questions. What are essential learning questions? We learned about what exactly do those look like, and I gave you a few examples of those in this tutorial. We also covered, why should we use these essential learning questions in our teaching. And remember that these questions help promote the big ideas and main content of a topic.

They also help for that high level thought and lively discourse in your classroom. Many great reasons to use essential learning questions. I hope you've enjoyed learning with me today. I think that you'll find these essential learning questions to be such a great tool for you as teachers in your very own classrooms.

How can we apply all of these ideas? Can you think of essential learning questions that you can use? Have you experienced essential learning questions in your education? Now it's your turn to apply what you've learned in this video. The additional resources section will be super helpful. This section is designed to help you discover ways to apply what you've learned here. Each link includes a brief description so you can easily target the resources you want.

Notes on "Essential Learning Questions"


(00:00- 00:28) Introduction/objectives

(00:29- 01:14) What are essential learning questions?

(01:15- 01:35) Examples of essential learning questions

(01:36- 02:03) Examples of non-essential learning questions

(02:04- 02:58) Characteristics of essential learning questions

(02:59- 04:31) Review/Reflection

Additional Resources

 What is UbD? Grant Wiggins Answers, with Video Cases

This video includes Wiggins' explanation of UbD. In addition, Wiggins includes case studies from schools and classrooms to illustrate UbD in action and its impact on teaching and learning. 

12 Ways to Kill Understanding by Design (UbD) from the Start

In this blog post, Grant Wiggins demonstrates common misconceptions about UbD and offers suggestions on how to avoid those pitfalls. For each misconception, Wiggins explains what teachers should do in their practice.

Essential Questions

This page offers a snapshot of the criteria for and examples of essential questions from the Greenville School District. This is a useful planning tool for teachers interested in incorporating essential questions into their lesson and unit designs.