User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Learners Should Be Developing Their Own Essential Questions

with 12 comments


Having essential questions drive curriculum and learning has become core to many educators’ instructional practices.  Grant Wiggins, in his work on Understanding By Design, describes an essential question as:

A meaning of “essential” involves important questions that recur throughout one’s life. Such questions are broad in scope and timeless by nature. They are perpetually arguable – What is justice?  Is art a matter of taste or principles? How far should we tamper with our own biology and chemistry?  Is science compatible with religion? Is an author’s view privileged in determining the meaning of a text? We may arrive at or be helped to grasp understandings for these questions, but we soon learn that answers to them are invariably provisional. In other words, we are liable to change our minds in response to reflection and experience concerning such questions as we go through life, and that such changes of mind are not only expected but beneficial. A good education is grounded in such life-long questions, even if we sometimes lose sight of them while focusing on content mastery. The big-idea questions signal that education is not just about learning “the answer” but about learning how to learn. (

Although essential questions are powerful advance organizers and curriculum drivers, the problem is that the essential questions are typically developed by the educator not the learners.  The educator may find these questions interesting and engaging, but that does not insure that students will find them as such.

Jamie McKenzie describes what actually happens in most schools and classrooms in terms of questioning.

There have always been plenty of questions in schools, but most of them have come from the teacher, often at the rate of one question every 2-3 seconds. Unfortunately, these rapid fire questions are not the questions we need to encourage because they tend to be recall questions rather than questions requiring higher level thought. The most important questions of all are those asked by students as they try to make sense out of data and information. These are the questions which enable students to make up their own minds. Powerful questions – smart questions, if you will – are the foundation for information power, engaged learning and information literacy. Sadly, most studies of classroom exchanges in the past few decades report that student questions have been an endangered species for quite some time. (Goodlad, Sizer, Hyman, etc.) (

Steve Denning in a Forbes article, Learning To Ask The Right Question, stated:

In education, there is often more emphasis on teaching than learning. The current test-driven system, which views teaching as imparting the right answers to the students, often does a poor job of equipping students to find the right question. If as I suggest the true goal of education is inspiring students with a lifelong capacity and passion for learning, it is at least as important that students be able to ask the right question as it is to know the right answer.

McKenzie (in 1997!) further discusses how the art of learner questioning by is especially relevant in this age of information abundance:

As long as schools are primarily about teaching rather than learning, there is little need for expanded information capabilities. Considering the reality that schools and publishers have spent decades compressing and compacting human knowledge into efficient packages and delivery systems like textbooks and lectures, they may not be prepared for this New Information Landscape which calls for independent thinking, exploration, invention and intuitive navigation. (

Questioning comes naturally to children and seems to become a lost art and skill as people age.

Paul Harris, a developmental psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, argues that questions occupy a more central role than we realize in childhood cognitive development. Young children, he says, learn a great deal about the world simply by asking questions and listening to others.  When Harris thinks of children asking questions, he sees them performing a series of complex mental maneuvers. “The child has to first realize that they don’t know something…and that other people are information-bearing agents,” Harris said. “Then the child has to be able to, somehow or other, realize that language is a tool for shifting stuff from that person to them.”

Adults tend to rush through those steps, perhaps because they seem like second nature. But figuring out what makes a good question—or rather, what kind of question will get us the information we want—isn’t such a simple thing, even for grownups. It requires stopping to think about what we’re trying to find out, what the person we’re talking to might know, and what words we should use to coax them into helping us. Being good at asking questions is the art of identifying those gaps, sorting them, and figuring out how to fill them. Considered that way, it is a strange skill: “the ability to organize your thinking around something you know nothing about,” said Rothstein.

That can get harder as we get older, in large part because we grow more confident that we understand the world around us, and lose the capacity to see past our own beliefs. Business consultant and former Hewlett-Packard chief technology officer Phil McKinney in his book “Beyond the Obvious,” argues that crafting good questions is precisely what allows people to make imaginative leaps. “The challenge is that, as adults, we lose our curiosity over time. We get into ruts, we become experts in our fields or endeavors,” (

I believe most educators would agree that learning to compose a good question is a skill students should possess.  There is evidence that the art of asking a good questioning is a skill that most adults do not possess and that schools are not doing a good job teaching.  There are some classroom activities educators can do to teach questioning techniques.

In an Edutopia article, Warren Berger proposes 5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners.


Jamie McKenzie, Ed.D. and Hilarie Bryce Davis, Ed.D. propose in Classroom Strategies to Engender Student Questioning some of the following activities to have students generate their own questions.

  • Begin a New Unit with Students Developing Questions: Try starting a new unit by asking your class to think of questions that could be asked about the topic.
  • Create a Taxonomy of Questions: When students begin to label the different kinds of questions, they learn to select different kinds of questions to perform different kinds of thinking. No matter what the level of schooling, some kind of label can work effectively.
  • Ask Students to Create Questions as Homework (this would work with the Flipped Classroom): Put your classroom questioning typology to work with your homework assignments. If students read an assignment, let them form questions for the next day’s discussion. Ask them to:
    • write three comparison questions about the story they are reading;
    • identify the question the author was trying to answer;
    • find a question which has no answer, or two thousand answers or an infinite number of answers;
    • ask a question that is the child of a bigger question that they can then ask the rest of the class to identify.

Although, I am not big on formulaic learning, the folks at the Right Question Institute proposed process for students to learn to formulate their own questions.  This can be a good start to having students learn to compose questions. The QFT has six key steps:

Step 1: Teachers Design a Question Focus. The Question Focus, or QFocus, is a prompt that can be presented in the form of a statement or a visual or aural aid to focus and attract student attention and quickly stimulate the formation of questions. The QFocus is different from many traditional prompts because it is not a teacher’s question. It serves, instead, as the focus for student questions so students can, on their own, identify and explore a wide range of themes and ideas.

Step 2: Students Produce Questions. Students use a set of rules that provide a clear protocol for producing questions without assistance from the teacher. The four rules are: ask as many questions as you can; do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; write down every question exactly as it was stated; and change any statements into questions.

Step 3: Students Improve Their Questions
. Students then improve their questions by analyzing the differences between open- and closed-ended questions and by practicing changing one type to the other.

Step 4: Students Prioritize Their Questions. The teacher, with the lesson plan in mind, offers criteria or guidelines for the selection of priority questions.

Step 5: Students and Teachers Decide on Next Steps. At this stage, students and teachers work together to decide how to use the questions.

Step 6: Students Reflect on What They Have Learned. The teacher reviews the steps and provides students with an opportunity to review what they have learned by producing, improving, and prioritizing their questions. Making the QFT completely transparent helps students see what they have done and how it contributed to their thinking and learning. They can internalize the process and then apply it in many other settings.

A case study of this process in action can be found at Educators Want Students To Ask The Questions and the following Prezi does a great job describing the need for student-generated questions and the QFT process:

Wielded with purpose and care, a question can become a sophisticated and potent tool to expand minds, inspire new ideas, and give us surprising power at moments when we might not believe we have any.

Leon Neyfakh

Isn’t this a skill we want our learners to develop?

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 24, 2013 at 4:07 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Thanks for sharing this, Jackie. I’ve been following Jamie McKenzie for years. He created a whole site dedicated to questions Here’s a link to his 1997 Questioning Toolkit that explains, analyzes and exemplifies different categories of questions: It’s a helpful starter in addition to your excellent article.

    Steve Ediger

    March 24, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    • Thanks for adding another resource, Steve. I hadn’t heard of Jamie McKenzie prior to my research on this topic. His work is great – had a great vision of being information literate in the information age 15 years ago!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      March 24, 2013 at 10:13 pm

  2. Yes the skill of asking good questions is an important one for teachers and students. Thanks for the overview Jackie. You may not have heard of Peerwise, developed by a New Zealand academic at the University of Auckland, where students can not only develop questions on a topic but also rate each others questions and follow people who are writing the best questions for their topic.And it’s free!

    Stephen Bright

    March 25, 2013 at 1:46 am

  3. Here is a school in Massachusetts that lets students design their school experience. At the beginning of each week a student chooses a question to answer. Then they present to their classmates at the end of the week.

    Mrs. Ralf

    March 25, 2013 at 5:31 am

  4. I’ve just discovered your blog through a ELT tweet and think it’s fantastic. I look forward to being a regular reader. Thank you for your efforts. They are appreciated.


    March 25, 2013 at 9:40 am

  5. Jackie, thank you so much for sharing this post. I, too, agree that students should generate their own questions. Creating inquiry around learning isn’t something that should be limited to teachers. Students need to engage in this practice as well. Your post reminded me of Perkins’ comments in Making Learning Whole. Perkins basically notes that he needed to practice more problem-finding, not problem-solving. Thanks for sharing and refining my thinking here!

  6. Thanks for this post-Jackie we were working one this simultaneously! We cover some of the research on student-generated questions here –

    Julie Schell

    March 26, 2013 at 5:23 pm

  7. Thanks for this post. Like Julie above I am hoping to present similar ideas to colleagues in order to help to improve our students learning.

  8. Thanks for sharing this post, Jacki we are always looking for many ways to improve our students learning and creating the best essential questions on major issues, problems, concerns, interests that relevant to students’ lives and to their communities and with your post, you are helping the educators to learn more and encouraging them to search for good essential questions in order to open-ended, meaningful and purposeful with emotive force and invite an exploration of ideas.



    January 25, 2014 at 8:40 pm

  9. Research questions that learners are passionate about and want to answer–are those user generated essential questions?


    February 22, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    • Educators are users, too.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      February 22, 2015 at 3:10 pm

  10. All any student needs is enough education/training to begin work, be able to ask an intelligent question, and recieve information to get to the next level or completion.

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