Many of the most commonly-asked questions in classroom settings are factual in nature: asking the teacher for “the” correct answer. Students are fed endless content to remember, and then asked questions to elicit recall: “What is the most abundant element in the universe?”, “What is the atomic number of hydrogen?”, etc. There are all sorts of good pedagogical reasons for using a question format to underscore knowledge or to call attention to a forgotten or overlooked idea — but such questions are superficial and elicit equally superficial understanding. In other words, the questions presented to students are not essential.

According to McTighe and Wiggins, authors of Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, essential questions meet certain criteria (1):

  • They are thought-provoking and intellectually engaging.
  • They call for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, and prediction and cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  • They point toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  • They raise additional questions and spark further inquiry.
  • They require support and justification, not just an answer.
  • They recur over time; that is, they can and should be revisited again and again.

Ultimately, essential questions are not answerable with finality in a single lesson or a brief sentence — and that’s the point. Their aim is to stimulate thought, provoke inquiry, and spark more questions, including thoughtful student questions, not just regurgitated answers. Essential questions promote discussion and debate. And this is where my class often goes.

Challenging inquiries

From there, deep thought and a lively discussion ensued. Watching students consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers was rewarding. But the icing on the cake became increasingly evident as students started making meaningful connections to prior learning and the world beyond our lab walls. These connections continued weeks later as students’ natural curiosity and competitive nature looped them back to the ideas shared during the debate. As noted by McTighe and Wiggins, this type of sustained inquiry represents one of the main goals of essential questions.

To rev up the intellectual engines of my seventh-grade students, I recently posted the following essential question in conjunction with a unit on acids and bases: “Does understanding hydrogen help us solve problems and make decisions?” Over the course of the unit, students pondered this question and began to compile ideas.

After gathering enough ideas to volley, students were divided into teams, affirmative and negative. Teams intact, our classroom turned into a new-fangled version of a court of law, complete with a panel of judges. With a strike of the gavel, teams began to banter back and forth. The affirmative team presented a powerful opening statement. “Hydrogen may be the simplest element, but if we use it as an energy source, it has the potential to reduce global warming.” This was countered with an equally powerful response from the opposition. “Hydrogen may have the potential to reduce global warming, but there is not much of it here on Earth, so before we can use it we have to make it, and this creates other problems.”

No “single answers”

The beauty of debates that seek to address essential questions is that there is no true finality, and no single, correct answer. The rulings passed by the judges at the end of the debate are, in fact, temporary. Students recognize this and continually breathe new life into topics and questions as the school year rolls out. Even students who typically sit in silence, fearful of sharing an incorrect response, find a sense of freedom when sharing ideas connected to open-ended, essential questions.

This sense of freedom has surfaced during written assessments, too. At the culmination of units that include debates, students respond beautifully to questions built on foundational facts. More interestingly, they are finding ways to debate even these responses. Their thirst to challenge and think outside the box has prompted me to create additional space on the unit test so that students can share the richness of their thoughts when answering these questions. The fact that they are challenging not only the information, but also my thinking, is rewarding. It demonstrates that they are learning life is ever-evolving and that much of what we know is either temporary or viewed very differently, depending on where you stand. Students are also beginning to grasp the intellectually healthy perspective needed to question the world around them, even when things present themselves as absolute.

Students’ continued pursuit of answers lingers indefinitely, and for this I am grateful. I know that the young minds I am nurturing are truly thinking through the content they are presumed to be learning. I also know that somewhere, hidden behind the written words of the essential questions posted on our walls, are opportunities to transform inquiry as a whole.

Resources for getting started

If you are interested in integrating this essential form of education into your instruction, I have created two resources that can help you get started. Both resources are available as downloads but are also accessible through the active links that follow. The first is a PowerPoint entitled, It’s Debatable.” Carving out one, 50-minute class period to share this series of slides with students prior to your first debate is incredibly beneficial and sets the tone for success, even for students who have been through the debate process previously. The slides and corresponding teacher notes provide a foundational understanding and “behind the scenes” look at various aspects of debates about essential questions including, but not limited to:

  • The definition of debate.
  • How students benefit from participating in debates.
  • How essential questions are developed and what criteria they must meet to be categorized as such.
  • The importance of using essential questions as a launching point for a competitive, educational debate.
  • An introduction to the roles students will play in the debate as well as the rubrics used to assess these roles.
  • Lists of Debate Dos and Useful Phrases to ensure a respectful experience enjoyed by all.
  • An overview of the debate process.

Emphasis on how everyone involved walks away a winner, no matter whose team is awarded the judges’ points.

The second resource is a printable Debate Reference Pack. I photocopy this series of working documents for each student and pass them out prior to sharing the PowerPoint, as the slides from “It’s Debatable” require students to reference the documents periodically throughout its presentation. This resource includes additional information about essential questions, scoring rubrics to assess students’ progress during debates, and other morsels for inquiring minds, such as:

  • Essential Question Criteria
  • Setting the Stage - Team Research
  • Setting the Stage - Judge Research
  • Debate Format
  • Debate Dos
  • Speaker/Writer Form
  • Team Scoring Rubric
  • Individual Scoring Rubric
  • Judge Scoring Rubric
  • Debate Essay Rubric

Especially useful is the Debate Format document, which provides an overview of the three-day debate process. I find that dedicating three 50-minute classes to each debate allows for students to compile formal evidence to support their team’s side of the debate. If time is of the essence, I sometimes assign a preliminary research phase, explained in Setting the Stage, as homework, which then shortens our dedicated class time to two 50-minute classes. Both paths are equally successful.


Patience and practice

When launching students’ essential question research as debate preparation, patience and practice are key. It typically takes my sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade classes running through two full debates before they are facilitating them on their own. Once students are fluent with the debate protocol, however, they are constantly thirsty for these thought-provoking and intellectually engaging opportunities. This is evidenced at the introduction of each new unit, when students remind me they much prefer essential question debates to my lecturing.

As this article begins its slow descent to the finish line, I will glide through a few essential questions that I have found work beautifully for debates and as “conceptual Velcro.”

Some of these questions are chemistry-related:

  • Is chemistry the environment’s best friend or worst enemy?
  • Are accuracy and precision important in chemistry?
  • Has chemistry changed society?

…While others address miscellaneous topics:

  • In the story of life, does friction play the role of hero or villain?
  • In nature, do only the strong survive?
  • Is DNA destiny?
  • Are science and common sense related?

In closing, I will frame one, final, essential question for you. As you reflect on this article and move forward through your academic year, ask yourself often, As teachers, are we assessing everything we value, or just that which is easiest to test and grade?


  1. McTighe, Jay and Wiggins, Grant. Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding; ASCD: Alexandria, VA, 2013. Print.

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