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Books in Translation

Big Ideas, Essential Questions: Deepening Student Understanding
March 28, 2013 | Volume 8 | Issue 13
Table of Contents 

Making a Unit Intellectually Engaging

Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins

A time-honored way to make learning more lively and proactive is to frame schoolwork around enchanting and thought-provoking questions and to weave the content in as "answers" or "tools" in helping learners address those questions. The best essential questions are thought-provoking by design; that is, by their very nature they seek to bring minds to life. As noted in Chapter 1, a question isn't essential unless it awakens, heightens, or challenges thought.

From a pedagogical point of view, we seek questions that are likely to make students want to do two things: (1) actively pursue an inquiry and not be satisfied with glib, superficial answers, and (2) willingly learn content along the way in the service of the inquiry. That's why the best questions, used properly, make learning more active and enjoyable.

When such questions are employed effectively, students experience far less sense of pointless drudgery because they are acquiring knowledge and skill for more obvious and worthy reasons. The learning is thus more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated, making it far more likely that students will persist with the work required for understanding and continuous improvement.

No wonder, then, that simulations, video games, and sports are so engaging and athletes are willing to endure the tedium of skill development and the pain of conditioning. Lurking behind every soccer game or swim meet is a set of interesting and ongoing essential questions: What do we need to do to win? What do we need to do to improve? What are our strengths and weaknesses, and how can we play to our strengths and lessen our weaknesses?

Such questions are constantly alive because each new game or meet brings a new form of challenge, and using one's mind to figure out how to be better at an immersive challenge is key to motivation.

In fact, the best coaches make such implicit questions explicit. Grant saw this with one of his daughter's high school soccer coaches, a veteran of 40 years of college and high school coaching. Unlike so many of his colleagues, he didn't lecture during the half-time break. He merely asked questions: What is working for us so far? What isn't? Why isn't it working, and how can we improve it? What is working for the other team, and how can we counter it?

The girls became much better players under this coach even though he "taught" less. As a result of his Socratic methods, they learned to "think soccer" and be constantly intrigued by and alert to the challenges in the questions.

We saw the same effect of good questions used by an English/language arts teacher of sixth-grade students. This teacher employed the following essential questions to guide students’ writing and the peer reviews:

For writers: What is your purpose? Who is your audience? Where is the paper working and not working, given your purpose? The answers had to be stapled to the draft for peer review.

For reviewers: To what extent did the writer achieve his/her purpose? Where were you most interested and where did you lose interest and why?

Invariably—as noted by the teacher and by interviewed students—the places where the reader lost interest became a teachable moment for some aspect of idea development, organization, word choice, or mechanics. Thus the framework of the EQs, and the effects of actively asking them, made the learning of the typical content far more relevant, timely, and acceptable to the learners. (Not incidentally, this teacher's students significantly outperformed other students in the district on the state writing assessment.)

From Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (pp. 19–20), by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, 2013, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission.

Jay McTighe leads ASCD's Understanding by Design® (UbD) cadre and brings a wealth of experience developed during a rich and varied career in education. He served as director of the Maryland Assessment Consortium; was involved with school improvement projects at the Maryland State Department of Education; and directed the development of the Instructional Framework, a multimedia database on teaching. Grant Wiggins is the president of Authentic Education in Hopewell, N.J. He also serves as a consultant to Pearson Publishing on 12 different textbook series. McTighe and Wiggins are coauthors of Understanding by Design and Schooling by Design. See ASCD's UbD resources page for more.


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 13. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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