Photo illustration by Robert J. Ballantyne

How to create essential questions

Quick tips on posing open-ended questions

In both education and journalism, the formation of thought-provoking questions is an eternal challenge.

Within education, essential questions form the foundation of lesson planning. The right question can transform a classroom into an engaged classroom — in the same way a great question can mean the difference between a standard interview and a memorable one.

According to Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, these are the seven elements of an essential question:

  1. Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  2. Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  4. Points toward important, transferrable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  5. Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.


McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. ASCD Member Books.

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