The Importance of an Essential Question

The Importance of an Essential Question

If you’ve done any 4MAT training you will know that we encourage you to think about an essential question that frames the wheel you are creating for your content. However, it is often not easy to do. Of course, if your syllabus provides some examples, you can always use those, but sometimes it is more powerful to create your own.

So why bother with an essential question you might ask? In the 4MAT setting it is designed to be thought provoking while capturing the reason for and the scope of the learning – it is the reason you cover the content you choose; and as such is the only type of essential question I am going to cover here. I realise that some other models recommend them in other places e.g. at the start of each lesson, but that is not the style of essential question that is used in the 4MAT model, although you could easily introduce them in this way as well if you wanted to.

In our case essential questions are overarching and broad, asking learners to use the knowledge they have gained from the content delivered to guide them to broader, conceptual and hopefully transferable understandings. This is the difference between “What are the steps and processes in digestion?” and “How do the various body systems interact to maintain health?” The best essential questions spark interest and engagement because they are relevant to the learner and the learning, but they are not answerable after a lesson or two. They require the higher-order thinking skills of analysis and synthesis rather than straight knowledge recall or understanding. They should lead to more questions and could be asked and re-asked throughout the unit as the answers might change as the learner’s understanding deepens.

Essential questions are also a powerful tool to help guide the assessment process. Once you have created your essential question, it can become very clear what type of task would allow your learners to demonstrate their understanding and answer the question during the final stages of the cycle (3R-4R). It will also clarify what critical pieces of content should be delivered and assessed during the teaching (2L & 3L) to ensure they have all the content they need to progress to the higher order thinking that answering an essential question requires.

If you are looking for a checklist of what makes a question essential, you can’t do better than the 7 defining characteristics used by McTighe & Wiggins in their book Essential Questions (2013):
1. Is open-ended – will not have a single, final answer
2. Is thought provoking and intellectually engaging – sparks discussion and debate
3. Calls for higher order thinking – cannot be answered by recall alone
4. Points towards important, transferable ideas within the content – and sometimes across disciplines
5. Raises additional questions – leading to further inquiry
6. Requires support and justification – not a short answer
7. Recurs over time – can be revisited when more content is learned

Using these 7 characteristics to refine and review the questions you are creating or using will go a long way to making them more powerful and an essential part of creating your 4MAT design.

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