About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding
By Jay McTighe & Grant Wiggins
Published by ASCD, 2013


courtesy ASCD

courtesy ASCD

I was lucky enough to go through my MAT training (about 10 years ago) with a program that used Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design as the model for planning.  Now their new release, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, takes educators one step further into truly authentic teaching for understanding.

The comprehensive backwards planning model in Understanding by Design taught me how to engage my students with essential questions, and to turn my classroom into a place of inquiry and a search for understanding.  In the ten years since I initially learned how to do this, my planning skills have continued to build upon the ideas I learned from McTighe and Wiggins.  Essential Questions, however, is a fresh burst of inquiry energy: it provides even deeper examination of what an essential question truly is; it gives practical and straightforward applications, and it discusses how to establish a truly inquiry-based classroom (no matter the age of your students).

McTighe and Wiggins jump right in with a break down of what an essential question truly is… and isn’t.  The three elements of “essential” have meaning when it comes to planning: its “important” or “timeless” qualities; its “elemental” or “foundational” nature; and how it is vital for personal understanding.  Framing a question for inquiry must balance these ides of “essential” so that understanding arises out of true critical thinking. In this first section, teachers can read detailed descriptions of the kinds of questions that are essential and those that are not.  Plentiful with examples, the authors show how a true essential question is meant to create a long-standing point of inquiry for students to return to as they work towards understanding.

The reader is not left wondering about the purpose of using essential questions; the authors spend an entire chapter discussing the why of this design.  If you are an educator seeking ways to not only encourage critical and metacognitive thinking for your students, but also to provide a platform on which they take the lead in their own learning, using essential questions as a framework for teaching is the key.   The additional benefits are numerous: using inquiry-based questions allows for more intra- and interdisciplinary connections, supports meaningful differentiation and provides a way to model metacognition.  In these days of rote testing preparation, igniting your units with essential questions can turn that test preparation into a dynamic process for your students.

But how, exactly, do I design an essential question that works? you ask.  Never fear: the how is provided in detailed examples and suggestions for teachers of all levels and subjects.  This section reenergized me.  I recently began writing curriculum for online learning, and one thing remains clear: the underlying question is what lays the foundation for how an independent learner will gain true understanding, just as it does in a classroom.  Breaking down the parts of the “overarching question,” and then learning how to build from that to “topical essential questions” gives the reader a way to visualize how to scaffold lessons with complimentary lines of inquiry.


The authors go on to provide detailed and helpful modeling on how to use the questions you have designed.  I encourage you as you read, to lay out your unit plans and begin to redesign them with essential questions as you learn how to more carefully do this.  Once you do, you will see the application of those questions come alive as the authors explain in a variety of examples how the questions can become a dynamic part of your teaching habits.  Providing your students with the experience of more than one answer, of no “one right” answer, and of learning by asking more questions will invigorate classroom discussion and student work.


An essential question can be the very key to creating a deeper dialogue between the students as they grapple for understanding of the topic.  I have already written about how to create a Socratic Discussion in the classroom, but this is only one example of how this method of design can juice up the “hands-on” atmosphere of inquiry for students.  Too often the use of text gets molded into simple guiding questions where students only pull out the facts necessary to respond to questions.  Using text as the basis for an essential question and then engaging in a Socratic model brings students to the next level, where they must create understanding with each other through wrestling with the question.

The authors provide for almost every scenario and concern a teacher might have – they offer examples of how to create and use essential questions in all subject areas and in challenging situations.  Even in courses where factual material is the core of the content, like mathematics or world languages, the authors provide a way to use essential questions for strategy, rather than skill.

There are all kinds of influences distracting students from engaging in deeper understanding.  But, as the authors note, the culture of our classrooms can outweigh the pressures from outside.  As students engage in dynamic inquiry, their desire to learn will be reflected in your classroom environment, but you have to create that environment by establishing explicit patterns and behaviors:

“Here is our maxim about establishing a culture for productive inquiry: walk the talk.  If you want thinking and inquiry, you have to ensure that they are required, not optional, vis-à-vis activities, assignments, and assessments.  Merely posing questions…will do little to advance the goal and culture of inquiry.  Furthermore, because we are wise to presume that students believe that school learning is simply content acquisition and testing, it will be critical to establish explicit time for inquiry into vital questions.”  (p. 85)

Packed with straightforward explanations, instructions, examples and rubrics, Essential Questions will help you level up your game and re-energize your planning.  It would be a great summer read as you begin to consider a fresh approach for next year.  If you’re switching up to a flipped or blended classroom, the guidance in this book will help you design truly meaningful lessons within the technology you’ll be using.  McTighe and Wiggins have once again given teachers a higher goal to reach for, and teachers now have a second, more in-depth model from which to design their inquiry-based classrooms.


Disclaimer: This book was provided to The Educator’s Room free of charge by the publisher.  However, neither The Educator’s Room nor the reviewer received any compensation for this review.  The opinions contained in this review are those of the reviewer alone and were written free of any obligation or agreement with the publisher.  If you have any questions regarding book reviews, see our full disclaimer or contact the Book Review Editor.

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