Do My Students Ask Essential Questions?

Tim Van SoelenThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Rear view of class raising hands --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

So, what makes a question essential?  We identify essential questions with characteristics such as open-endedness, the question’s ability to call for higher order thinking, whether it raises additional questions, and how it requires support and justification. Essential questions are ones not answerable with finality in a single lesson or a brief sentence – and that is the point. This focus on essential questions has been good for educators, causing us to think about how these questions provoke and generate deep learning with our students. Reading through the book of Matthew has reminded me once again of how many times questions are so critical to my learning process, more so than the answers to the questions. And Christ certainly asked some doozies to His disciples and others with whom He interacted. A few examples for your consideration…

  • If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matthew 5:46)
  • “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? (Matthew 6:27)
  • “Which is easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Get up and walk?’” (Matthew 9:5)
  • “To what can I compare this generation?” (Matthew 11:16)
  • “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13)
  • “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22)
  • “Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” (Matthew 23:17-19)

Jesus was and is certainly teaching through these questions. As teachers, we ask a lot of questions, some essential ones. Researchers note that verbal questioning is second only to lecturing as the most common instructional practice. Teachers ask approximately 300-400 questions per day! We have been equipped to ask higher-order thinking questions (HOTS) and lower-order thinking questions (LOTS). Or, in less professional language, we give them a few softballs (an offensive analogy if you have played fast-pitch softball) to get them warmed up for the fastballs, curveballs, and rise balls. As teachers, we study Bloom’s Taxonomy and try to scaffold questions that work their way up from Understanding and Remembering to Analyzing and Evaluating. Note, however, this focus is on me asking these questions.

When we think of the questions that students ask, at least in my experience, they revolve around clarification. “When is this due?” or “How many pages should it be?” or “How does that Pythagorean Theorem go again?” Steve Snyder, from Grand View University, asked the question, “Why aren’t my students asking more questions?” and I would add “Why aren’t they asking more essential questions?” His conclusion was simple, his students were less experienced at asking great questions, at cross-examining ideas. Steve surmised that “the challenge for me was to nudge them from novices to something closer to advanced beginners.” Snyder developed a set of prompts that align with Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. Each day he asked his students to pick the best questions on the texts they were reading. Keep in mind that these lists are written for college students, here you go:

Level One: Contextuals, Definitions, Clarifications, and Analyzers:

  • How was X (an event/text/work) shaped by its time?
  • Where did it originate and why?
  • Who was its originator and what was he or she like?
  • How do you define this word/term/idea/etc.?
  • What does this passage/concept/etc. mean?
  • What would be a specific, concrete example?
  • How do the parts contribute to the whole?
  • How is this idea/concept organized and why is it organized that way?

Level Two: Comparatives, Causals, and Evaluatives:

  • How is X the same as that? How is it different? What is the opposite of X?
  • How are these more or less similar?
  • What factors caused X to happen?
  • Which of these factors is sufficient? Which factors are contributing or probable?
  • On what grounds can we eliminate possible causes or explanations?
  • What are the most important features of X?
  • Why do you like or dislike X (or agree or disagree)?
  • How strong is the case that X is correct?
  • What criteria are best for judging X?
  • What is the best order of priority for these things and why?
  • What is the strongest argument against X?

Level Three: Counterfactuals, Extenders, Synthesizers:

  • How would X change if this happened?
  • How would things be different if X had not happened?
  • How would things be different if X happened to a greater (or lesser) degree?
  • How can we apply X to this set of circumstances?
  • What can we predict if X is correct?
  • What ideas should be added to X?
  • What might happen if you added this to X?

A good challenge for us as we begin another academic year – how can we help our students ask essential questions? How can these essential questions, when asked by our students (and paraphrasing CACE Fellow Dan Beerens), cultivate a wonder to discover God’s creation, further a wisdom that comes from Biblical principles, and nurture a desire to live a life of service and worship?


  • Tim Van Soelen

    Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.

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