In one of the many articles analyzing Season 5 of Game of Thrones, Washington Post writer Alyssa Rosenberg provides us with 4 great examples of what educators often refer to as "essential questions." Rosenberg's questions are:

  • Can you roll back religious fundamentalism?
  • Is there any force, be it a long winter or the threat of ice zombies, that can make humans set aside their differences?
  • What are the long-term costs of revenge?
  • Does isolationism work? What about terrorism?

If you happen to be a GoT fan, you'll recognize these questions as being related to some of the recurring themes in the series, but even if you're not you may recognize that the questions have certain characteristics. They don't have simple yes-or-no answers, they seem to be addressing some "big" ideas, they encourage one to engage in extended analysis and discussion, etc. These are all characteristics of essential questions, or EQs.

If you're not a teacher you may be thinking to yourself, "What's the big deal about a bunch of questions about Game of Thrones?" but if you are a teacher you may be thinking, "Yeah, I've heard a lot about essential questions recently, but I don't really feel like I understand them." That's how I've been feeling about them for the past year or so. I'd heard about them, even tried my hand at coming up with some, but I just didn't feel like I really understood exactly what they were or why they were so important.

That began to change for me a few months ago when I was teaching my Math 2 students about logarithms. It was a fairly introductory set of lessons on logarithms; I wanted my students to understand what logarithms are, why they're useful, and how to use them to solve some simple equations. (At a very basic level logarithms are just exponents, though very quickly you come to realize that they can be amazingly powerful and complicated.)

Several of my students were clearly struggling with the idea that common logarithms (aka, base 10 logarithms) are really just a way to write numbers as powers of 10. Not just numbers like 100 or 1000, which can be written as "10 to the power of 2" and "10 to the power of 3", respectively, but also numbers like say, 749, which can be written as "10 to the power of 2.8745.

One of the resources I was using, a lesson from a textbook, contained this line:

As you work on problems of this investigation, look for an answer to this question: How can any positive number be expressed as a power of 10?

Based on the struggles my students had been having, it occurred to me that this was a question that really summed up a lot of what I wanted my students to get out of this lesson, and that it would probably be helpful if I could more intentionally structure this lesson around that question. And suddenly it hit me. "Oh! That's an essential question!"

In some ways, EQs are what many of us would just call "higher-order thinking" questions; that is, questions that require more than mere recall in order to answer fully. While that's one characteristic of EQs, it's not the only one. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, in this chapter from their book "Essential Questions", offer seven defining characteristics of a good essential question. According to them, a good 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, transferable 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.

Rosenberg's questions have these characteristics, as does the "power of 10" question above. (As McTighe & Wiggins point out in the above link, this question might technically be more of a "guiding question" than an essential question, depending on the intent of the question and how it's used. As they note: "...the essentialness of the question depends upon why we pose it, how we intend students to tackle it, and what we expect for the associated learning activities and assessments. Do we envision an open, in-depth exploration, including debate, of complex issues, or do we plan to simply lead the students to a prescribed answer? Do we hope that our questions will spark students to raise their own questions about a text, or do we expect a conventional interpretation?")

The reason essential questions are so valuable to teachers and students, is that they help us to move beyond a simplistic, memorization-based, context-free approach to learning, and into something deeper and more useful. We don't just watch Game of Thrones because it's entertaining (though it is), we watch it because it provides us with a useful way to talk about and learn about important things like revenge and religious fundamentalism and getting along with each other. And we don't just learn about logarithms because they're vaguely interesting numerical tools (though they are), we learn about them because they provide us with a useful way of understanding things like pH and decibels and earthquakes and orders of magnitude. And those things are deeper and more complicated than can be expressed by the answer to a simple yes-or-no question.


Interactions with teens; low-key often works best

June 6, 2015
Thumbnail image for Interactions with teens; low-key often works best

"Mr. Bledsoe, do you have any tissues?" Seems like a fairly ordinary question, right? It wasn't. Up until a few months ago, the area right outside my classroom was blissfully deserted before school. There were several kids who hung out down the hall outside other teachers' classrooms, but nobody gathered outside mine and I was […]

Read the full article →

My new book, “Flip Your Classroom, Then Flip It Again”

January 31, 2015
Thumbnail image for My new book, “Flip Your Classroom, Then Flip It Again”

It's true, I just wrote a book so for all of you who have been clamoring for it (hi Mom!), here you go. It's called Flip Your Classroom, Then Flip It Again: How to Implement One Simple Tweak to Radically Improve Your Teaching (And Your Life) . You can get it as an ebook from Amazon, or […]

Read the full article →

Your teen doesn’t know how to use Google, and she can’t spell “diabetes”

January 29, 2015
Thumbnail image for Your teen doesn’t know how to use Google, and she can’t spell “diabetes”

Two encounters with students from the past week: A few days ago I gave my classes a take-home quiz that involved answering questions about my class website. I told them that they could pick up some extra-credit points on their next test if, instead of submitting their typed quiz answers via email, they created a […]

Read the full article →

Aldi vs. Lowes Foods

January 25, 2015
Thumbnail image for Aldi vs. Lowes Foods

I had the opportunity to shop at the new Aldi grocery store that just opened across the street from our neighborhood Lowes Foods last week (at the corner of Timber and Aversboro for you locals), and the prices were so noticeably lower I thought I'd do a direct comparison. I bought a total of 34 […]

Read the full article →

Group work, only better

October 16, 2014
Thumbnail image for Group work, only better

Last week my high school math classes did their first group work activity of the year, and it went much better than it ever has. The level of engagement in all the groups was very high, the behavioral functioning of the groups was excellent, and the math conversations taking place were impressive. Here are three reasons why I think things went […]

Read the full article →

“I, We, You” vs. “You, Y’all, We”

August 7, 2014
Thumbnail image for “I, We, You” vs. “You, Y’all, We”

In a fascinating article "Why Do Americans Stink at Math," Elizabeth Green explores, among other things, the recent history of math education in the US, and talks a little about a fairly well-known traditional teaching technique known as "I, We, You." Most American math classes follow the same pattern, a ritualistic series of steps so ingrained that one researcher termed it […]

Read the full article →

Learning to get along with the lifeguard

July 27, 2014
Thumbnail image for Learning to get along with the lifeguard

A lot of what you do as a lifeguard, just like as a teacher, is enforce rules. It's understood that you're the authority figure at the pool and that part of your job is to tell people not to run on the deck, or no diving in the shallow end. Most people are generally okay […]

Read the full article →

The evolution of a video lesson

May 26, 2014
Thumbnail image for The evolution of a video lesson

Here's a brief description of how I used a bunch of great stuff I found online to create two video lessons for the probability unit in my math class (Common Core Math, Year 2). 1. What did I want? I wanted my students to learn how to use probability tree diagrams to model and solve […]

Read the full article →

What I have to say to this year’s high school graduates

May 17, 2014
Thumbnail image for What I have to say to this year’s high school graduates

Apparently when you get selected as the Garner Magnet High School Teacher of the Year, one of the things you have get to do is say a few words at the Honors Convocation, which is kind of like a mini-graduation ceremony for all of that year's honors graduates (the ones who have a 3.3 or […]

Read the full article →