What is an Essential Question?

The Essential Question

One of the core elements of UbD is the Essential Question.

What is an essential question?

As defined by Wiggins & McTighe, an essential question is one that works toward a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.

It is not uncommon for the answer to an essential question to also come in the form of a question. To answer an essential question, one is likely to do more research, navigate debates, encounter some problems, and reflect.

Each answer leads to a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.

The Easiest Essential Question

Are you ready for the easiest Essential Question?


We've all heard children ask this the letter question over and over. Note that in many cases, "because I said so" isn't going to be particularly encouraging for someone to want to learn more deeply.

As you continue to ask yourself "Why?", You will eventually find yourself needing to discuss the _what_s and _how_s, but we'll get to that later. Just take note of them for now.

What are different points of view for the answers to your questions? What ideas are similar to other things the learner already understands? How has the topic charged and evolved over time? Are these changes for the better?

All of these questions can be recursively applied to the responses to the questions you've recursively asked.

Here's an example from Wiggins & McTighe:

How do writers hook their readers?

Writing style is one of the Big Ideas in hooking readers.

There are certainly a lot of skills and knowledge that contribute to an understanding of writing style, but being able to list examples of Narrative and Expository writing wouldn't help someone fully answer the question How can I best convey my message to the reader?

Big Ideas after more than just facts.

They put the essence in essential.

Example Essential Questions

Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you approach a topic:

Where would someone engineer this topic in the real world?

What are the misconceptions about this topic?

What are common problems someone will encounter when learning this topic? How do the best problem solvers approach them?

How reliable is the evidence that supports a claim?

More to Ask

There are always going to be question to ask.

Above, you've read a definition of what an essential question is, seen one in action, and read examples that you can use as a starting point for uncovering the Big Ideas of the subject you want to teach.

How will asking essential questions ensure your students will understand as deeply as possible?