on the first try. Everything we know
about the writing and design processes
reminds us that this is an unsuccessful
approach. We want numerous and
diverse ideas at first, jotted down
quickly, from which a good one will
The problem is compounded when
writers spend too much time wordsmithing the question instead of
trying to generate the best intellectual
direction. Don’t try to write and edit
simultaneously. Draft a bunch of questions first, then edit. The more versions
you draft, the easier the editing will be.
Tip: Use brainstorming rules: Don’t
judge (or self-judge), and jot down
lots of ideas in a brief span of time.
Also, draft webs of related questions.
For example, when it comes to a piece
of writing, you might ask, What am I
trying to say? To whom am I trying to
say it? What do I want readers to leave
with or be ready to do after reading this?
Maybe you’ll use all the questions, and
maybe you won’t. But creating such
webs usually points to a deeper and
more powerful direction for inquiry.
7. Am I looking for questions in all
the wrong places?
By committing to essential questions
as a framing approach, you’re planning
for inquiry and argument as a priority
outcome. Essential questions aren’t a
teaching move. Rather, they’re a design
move intended to make it more likely
that the work and talk get beyond low-level coverage. So looking only at the
content you wish students to acquire
is not the optimal way to come up with
To aim for understanding is to aim
for three kinds of learning: acquisition, meaning making, and transfer.
Given the content, then, what theories
should learners build and test? What
problems and texts will prompt them
to do so? What attempts at application
will raise all the right arguments and
require further generalizations?
For example, in a unit on mean,
median, and mode, just learning to
manipulate those three concepts
won’t develop understanding. The
interesting and arguable aspects of
those concepts lie in how to best use
them—and avoid misusing them!—in
making sense of real data. So this draft
question heads in the wrong direction:
When do we use mean, median, and
mode Rather, focus on the significance and applicability of the ideas:
What’s the fairest way to calculate
grades? What are the strengths and
weaknesses of each measure of tendency?
When are measures of central tendency
most abused, and how can we defend
against such abuses?
Tip: Build into your lessons
meaning-making and application
challenges—for example, a Socratic
seminar, formal debate, or problem-based learning project. By committing
to using at least one such interactive
approach, you’ll more likely come
up with an arguable and intriguing
question for framing the unit.
The Bottom Line
The fact is, you need to develop the
habit of always critiquing the essential
questions you draft. High-level
inquiries and questioning yield some
of the greatest gains possible on conventional tests of achievement, as well
as better student engagement.
Getting the questions right takes
discipline, skill, and artfulness. But it’s
well worth the effort to ensure that
students tackle inquiries that are
important, intriguing, and revealing. EL
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking,
R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn:
Brain, mind, experience, and school
(Expanded ed.). Washington DC:
National Academies Press.
Brown, A. S., & Palincsar, A. L. (1984).
Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and
Instruction, 1( 2), 117–175.
Mc Tighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2013).
Essential questions: Opening doors to
student understanding. Alexandria, VA:
Wiggins, G. (2015, April 20). On transfer
as the goal of literacy [blog post].
Retrieved from Granted, and . . .
Wiggins, G., & Mc Tighe, J. (2011). The
understanding by design guide to cre-
ating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA:
Copyright © 2015 Denise Wilbur
Grant Wiggins, an
author, and friend
to ASCD, died
suddenly before this article went
into production. Among his many
contributions to education was the
Understanding by Design (UbD)
curriculum model, cocreated with
Jay Mc Tighe. Wiggins authored
numerous Educational Leadership
articles and ASCD books. He was
president of Authentic Education,
a New Jersey–based education
training and consulting firm.
Particularly pertinent to this
EL theme, Wiggins coined the
term essential questions as it
has come to be understood in
education. He will be missed by
friends throughout the education
Denise Wilbur (denise@
of this article, was Grant’s wife
and is the vice president of