Published Works for Teachers

Essential and Guiding Questions


Students and Teachers Alike Can Benefit from RubricsUsing essential and guiding questions certainly binds a unit of study together, bringing a clearer focus to the lesson. Originally introduced by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, we modified the practice and infused it into our Exploring History series back in 2000. We are finding that more and more people ask for a clear explanation of how to draft these questions for each unit of study.

The Essential Question

What is an essential question? Simply put, the essential question:

  • is a definition question, serving as an umbrella for other guiding questions.
  • frames the organizing center and is written to promote higher-level thinking due to its broadness.
  • helps link concepts and principles and anchors them.
  • cannot be answered in one sentence, as it is so broad that it encompasses a hierarchical structure within.

Examples of Essential Questions                                    

  • What is identity?
  • What is self-concept?
  • What is conflict?
  • What is a team?
  • What is a revolution?
  • What is freedom?
  • What is effective listening?
  • What is negotiation?

Now, we are sure that you are saying, “Wait! Isn’t revolution part of the definition of what is conflict?” If you are, then good for you! You are beginning to see the unit from a macrocentric (all-knowing) point of view. The higher you travel up into the air, the broader your scope.

The same holds true for “What is a revolution?” One could argue that it is really part of “What is conflict?’ So, the answer becomes, how old are your students and how focused do you want the macrovision to become? How far out or how close up do you want your scope to be? As with all great teachers, they learn to modify their practices for their particular group of students each and every year.

Guiding Questions

Guiding questions support the essential question. They are still part of the big picture but begin to break down the question into its hierarchical components.

Part I: Guiding questions often link the following sub-topics to the  essential question, such as:

  • What caused this?
  • Who is involved?
  • Why did this happen?
  • How does this affect you personally?
  • How does this affect your community?
  • How are relationships formed and made?
  • How does this affect other aspects that are linked to this topic?
  • How is this viewed by governments, organizations, special interest groups, etc.?

Part II: Embedding the content and writing it with open-ended questions: (Please see our article on writing open-ended questions.)

At Life Sciences Secondary School, Principal Genevieve Stanislaus is a strong advocate of offering coaching support for her teachers. When we worked with Tom Miller, who teaches US History, we listened to what was important for him to teach his particular group of students. These are the essential and guiding questions that were drafted for the unit on World War II:

Essential Question: What is conflict?

Guiding Questions:

  • What happens when the basic needs of a people are jeopardized?
  • In what ways do governments try to avoid conflict?
  • For what reasons do governments try to satisfy these basic needs?
  • For what reasons do people align themselves with other individuals of like minds during a conflict?
  • In what ways do people’s opinions become more polarized when conflicts arise and escalate?
  • For what reasons are new alliances created where none may have existed previously?

Now, we are sure that you might say, “Oh, I could add to this list.” Or, “I wouldn’t use this question, but I would draft that one.” That’s the beauty of guiding questions. They can focus on certain aspects of the area of concentration that is meaningful to your students.

When we worked with Catherine Henry, who teaches English Language Arts at the middle school, we listened to what was important for her to teach her particular group of students. These are the essential and guiding questions that were drafted for the unit on Of Mice and Men:

Essential Question:  What is friendship?

Guiding Questions:

  • Describe in detail the definition of trust.
  • Compare and contrast different levels of friendship.
  • In what ways is telling the truth different when talking to a good friend versus an acquaintance?
  • Explain specifically how our actions can hurt a friend.
  • For what reasons are we able to hurt a good friend?
  • Describe in detail why a best friend hard to find.
  • Using a Venn Diagram, compare and contrast the qualities of a good friend versus a bad friend.

Once you have drafted your own set, we strongly recommend, in time, that you begin to draft essential and guiding questions with your students. The more ownership they feel they have in their own learning, the more motivated and engaged they will become.

Please describe how using essential and guiding questions helped the students and your instruction. 

(c) 2012 Andi Stix, Ed.D.

Andi Stix is an educational consultant & coach who specializes in differentiation, interactive learning, writing across the curriculum, classroom coaching and gifted education. For further information on her specialties or social media, please email her on the Contact page.