Jamie McKenzie touches upon what they aren’t in his text Learning to Question, Learning to Wonder (FNO Press, 2005):

“Unfortunately, the term is often bandied about with little rigor, definition or clarity so that many pedestrian and insignificant questions slip in under the term simply because they are large, sweeping and grand in some respects. Essential questions are not simply BIG questions covering lots of ground.”

This distinction caught my attention for several reasons, but I’m particularly drawn to the word “rigor” here, as well McKenzie’s call for “definition” and “clarity.” The phenomenon he describes happens elsewhere in our profession fairly often, doesn’t it?

Essential question writing is critical thinking at it’s best, and critical thinking is not necessarily quick or painless. It can get messy and uncomfortable and downright frustrating. Good essential questions are the work of revision and rethinking. Operating under pressure often tempts us to simply get the job done, and while everyone can appreciate the value of teaching with essential questions, it’s easy to understand how rigor, definition, and clarity are often lost.

Many of us are interested in working efficiently. Massive curricula, short class periods, huge class sizes, and varied perceptions regarding accountability do little to provide the space and time that teaching with intention requires. And that’s what essential question writing is really all about.

Maybe we need to reconsider what it means to be efficient. It can feel very satisfying to get the job done. Whipping through the daily agendas that drive our work and ticking off the items on our professional to do lists can seem like productivity, but when the work that we produce lacks the sort of rigor, definition, and clarity that McKenzie speaks to, how does it end up serving kids in the end? How does it end up serving us?

Efficiency is not merely about turning out products. It’s about gaining new understandings, expanding our own schema, and refining the processes that we use to create the products that we do. Products rarely last forever. Eventually, they stop serving us as well as they could, requiring us to recreate or replace them. On first attempt, getting the job done might look like efficiency, particularly when we are rewarded for that by those that we aim to please. Ultimately, though, our processes are what sustain us. They are what enable us to produce increasingly better products. Our inability to do that well is what leads to stagnation. It’s what leads to this sort of disconnect:

Cultivating true efficiency, then, might require us to think more critically and move at a rate that is just a few paces slower than we are accustomed to. Ironically, this can help us progress at a rate that is a few paces faster than we’re accustomed to. It’s sad, sometimes, how little progress is made in the name of efficiency.

What does this have to do with essential question writing? Well, if the essential questions we ask can become more than “BIG ideas covering lots of ground” and if we teach with them purposefully, then it’s possible that our students might become less interested in simply getting the job done. It’s possible that we can teach them that process is more valuable than product, that their ability to think is what will serve them better in the long run, and that what happens in school has value far beyond the four walls of our classrooms.

We can do that, I’m thinking. But we have to model it in our own practice first.




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