Seven Ways to Hone
Alas, such questions rarely emerge in
the first draft. Here are some common
first-draft questions: How do good
readers use strategies to understand text?
What’s the value of chemistry? What
were the three major causes of World
War I? Why do earthquakes happen?
These questions fail to meet the
suggested criteria. They’re all convergent, low-level questions designed
to support content acquisition. They
either point toward the one official
“right” answer, or they elicit mere lists
and thus no further inquiry.
If first drafts of essential questions
are likely to be too fact-focused, how
can we ensure that subsequent drafts
better meet the criteria? Here are some
editing tips, which, in the spirit of the
topic, we’ve framed as questions.
1. How well does the draft question
meet the criteria?
Writers of essential questions need to
develop the discipline of pausing to
deliberately self-assess their question
against specific criteria. Look at the
first nonexample: How do good readers
use strategies to understand text? The
question is leading; it merely aims to
remind students of the answer. It asks
for recall, not inquiry.
A better question might be, Which
strategy should I use when I don’t understand what I’m reading? By putting the
question this way, the student must
think about all possible moves and
determine which to use in each “stuck”
situation. The research on effective
instruction in comprehension strategies
shows that asking students to generalize their answers helps them become
self-regulated learners because generalizations facilitate transfer (Bransford,
Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Brown &
Palincsar, 1984; Wiggins, 2015).
Tip: Create a simple checklist to use
for either self- or peer-assessment of
draft questions. The checklist should
include the criteria listed above. You
can also use the seven questions in this
article to self-assess your draft. Finally,
get in the habit of running draft ideas
by others. Sometimes by just saying
the draft question aloud, you’ll realize
how to edit it.
2. If the question is too convergent,
how can I phrase it to invite inquiry
and argument? If the question is
factual, what question on the same
topic is worth arguing about?
Arguments involve unsettled issues
of understanding or application—not
settled knowledge and skill. We typically find debates not in the content
itself but in discussions of its value,
importance, or applicability. For
example, there’s no argument about
how to kick a soccer ball with the
instep, but there are endless debates
over when to shoot, pass, or dribble.
Here’s a draft question in English
language arts: What is proper punctuation, and why is it important?
There’s little argument about the first
half of the question, and the second
half seems likely to limit, rather than
expand, inquiry. Referring to the soccer
example—and to debates on when to
execute certain actions in the game—
we can revise the punctuation question
to read, When is proper punctuation
mandatory, and when is it optional? We
can easily prompt debate by looking at
poems and social media messages that
should I use
when I don’t