Critical Minds, Compassionate Hearts

How are Essential Questions Used to Teach?

Beth Brown and Jodi Seewald Smith
Essential questions are vital and reappear throughout one’s life. They are broad in reach and enduring by nature.
Questioning is fundamental to student learning at The Rashi School. This year, Rashi educators are challenging students by weaving more essential questions into their teachingThese questions are open-ended, thought-provoking, intellectually engaging, raise additional questions, and require students to support and justify their point of view. This approach stretches students’ high-order thinking skills in a way that asking questions that elicit one correct answer based on rote memorization cannot. 

Through the act of answering essential questions, students infer, evaluate, and predict across all academic content areas. For example, in seventh and eighth grade Jewish Studies, students engage in a forum-based discussion framed around the following essential questions:
  • How is Torah so relevant today when it was written thousands of years ago?”
  • “What can I learn from the Torah and how do we live it?” and
  • “How is it that we read Torah over and over again do new insights emerge?” 
In third grade, teachers ask:
  • “How does writing help us create and express an identity?”
  • “How does literature promote connection?” 
  • “Why is math relevant?
  • “Do we do math or think math?”           

To support the academic process, our teachers are deepening their ability to incorporate inquiry into daily instructional practices through their own collaborative learning around a shared text. The entire teaching team is reading Essential Questions, Opening Doors to Student Learning, by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. Through our professional development program, teachers participate in ongoing peer coaching to strengthen how they apply the approaches taught in this book to their teaching at Rashi.   
How can you bring essential questions home? Instead of asking your child what they learned in school today, ask them an essential question. Ask about the questions they thought about at school today. Their responses will spark conversation and provide you with a new level of understanding about the depth of their education.