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:

- Is
*open-ended;*that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer. - Is
*thought-provoking*and*intellectually engaging*, often sparking discussion and debate. - Calls for
*higher-order thinking*, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone. - Points toward
*important, transferable ideas*within (and sometimes across) disciplines. - Raises
*additional questions*and sparks further inquiry. - Requires
*support*and*justification*, not just an answer. *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.

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